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“The Player,” directed by Robert Altman

the player

Hollywood’s Hip Cynicism

By Ray Sawhill

Robert Altman plays with the elements of film-making the way jazz musicians play with tunes and changes, the way painters like Jasper Johns and Jim Dine play with pop iconography. He destabilizes the elements he works with, opening them and making them part of larger processes, part of a flow. He works with what you’re not used to admitting to consciousness, what you normally tune out: objects and actions at the edges of your vision, overheard sounds, half-formed thoughts, hazy memories.

Altman’s one-time assistant Alan Rudolph recalls that Altman used to say to him, “Nobody makes the films they want to make, they make the films they’re able to make.” Altman’s film-making suggests an ethos of taking your clue from what life presents to you. “I don’t go in and say, Let’s see how we can do it differently,” says Altman. “It’s more like, I don’t want to do that, because I’ve seen that. And also, it never rings true to me. It’s more starting at the inside of these projects and building them from the inside out. I’m always surprised myself by what the exterior, the total package, looks like.”

His 1992 film, “The Player,” is another easygoing goof on an institution. In his 1971 “M*A*S*H” it was the Army; in his 1975 “Nashville” it was politics and the country-music industry. Here, it’s Hollywood. The picture is naughty, and it has dazzle and audacity. But “The Player” doesn’t have the all-devouring quality of Altman’s early 1970s work, or the intensity and concentration — of bitterness, exile, rancor, and obsessiveness — of some of the work he made in the 1980s after leaving Hollywood. “The Player” may remind us of the great Altman films, but it isn’t really great: it’s movie-making as sunny-spirited recreation. Is there a danger Robert Altman will become a benevolent, lovable sweetie? Altman’s relationship with his subject isn’t the antagonistic one you’d expect, given his history with Hollywood. He doesn’t seem to have a serious quarrel with the film industry anymore. It’s like a formerly married couple spending an evening together: maybe they wrangle and feel some of the old heat, but in the end they back off. They’ve learned they can live and let die.

In “The Player,” which is taken from a Michael Tolkin novel that’s essentially a writer’s hate letter to the movie business, the central character is the once-thought-to-be-rising studio executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins). He feels his career is riding on every decision. He’s freaked out and paranoid; Altman and Tolkin suggest that this is the normal emotional state of Hollywood people on the make. Griffin is having trouble being a player. Something’s holding him back and torpedoing his prospects. His girlfriend, Bonnie, who is a story editor at the studio where he works and who is his ally in his job wars, doesn’t excite him. At the office, he’s picking up bad vibes — it’s rumored that another young hotshot is being brought in and will rank above him. He’s also receiving threatening, homicidal postcards from an anonymous writer whom he has evidently snubbed. Griffin is a brat, but a brat in torment; the postcards bring together the lousy feelings he has about his life. So when he thinks he has figured out who the writer is, he tries to placate his suspect by offering him a deal. But this writer isn’t grateful, and Griffin’s rage gets the better of him. As Altman presents the movie, it’s a joke on the idea of the “up” Hollywood ending: Griffin learns (you always have to learn something in a Hollywood film) to live with being a murderer, and this releases him from his torment.

Altman opens “The Player” with a bang — a virtuoso shot that begins with an image of a clapper coming down in front of a mural depicting early film-making. During this shot’s eight minutes, what we see and hear includes a discussion of the virtues of fast cutting vs. continuous, unbroken shots; a chat about the famous opening shot in “Touch of Evil”; two different close-ups of a postcard; several cases of mistaken identity; a variety of activities seen through windows; a group of Japanese visitors on a studio tour; and three or four movie “pitches.” This shot sets the stage for a film that could be said to be about the manipulation of images, and frames within frames.

Altman moves in tight for Griffin’s drama, and then backs off and takes in the moviemaking world, a cuckoo-land where lives, careers, and projects exist in a state of perpetual, dangling uncertainty. The movie is filled with “real” celebrities — actual performers and film-makers playing themselves. You’re kept (enjoyably) uncertain about which performers are appearing as themselves and which you’re being asked to accept as fictional characters. We can take this as a visualization of Griffin’s paranoia, as well as of how much of life in the movie world consists of stargazing — in Hollywood, you’re always on the lookout. A producer (Carolyn Pfeiffer) who attended the first screening of “The Player” says that afterward, when the lights came up, it was as though the movie had spilled out into the auditorium — the audience was full of film business types, and some of them had been up on the screen.

It’s usually a gag when Altman moves in tight on Griffin again. We laugh at this spoiled boy’s fears and humiliations, and at his “dignity.” When Malcolm McDowell (playing himself) spots Griffin at a hotel and needles him, Griffin is shaken; for a second he looks as if he might burst into tears. When the Pasadena police grill him about the writer’s death, they unnerve him with their small talk and their unsmoothed-out eccentricities. (In “The Player,” Pasadena contrasts with Hollywood; it’s where a rep house plays “The Bicycle Thief,” where the “truth” is still an issue, and where Griffin’s power strategies count for nothing at all.)

For Griffin, writers might almost be interchangeable nuisances. When he tries to locate the author of the threatening postcards, he’s willing to settle for the first name that’s plausible. In a sinister, oddly fluid and beautiful scene, he drives up to this fellow’s house and calls him on his cellular car phone; he gets June (Greta Scacchi), a painter who is the writer’s girlfriend. Although he’s calling from right outside her house, Griffin lets her assume he’s at his office. He walks from window to window, looking in on her as they talk; she moves about, playing with her paints and paintings. The camera moves from outside the house with him and his phone and his pretence to inside with her and her reflection — it’s night and the house is lit up from within. June is dressed in flowing white. The interior of the house is white and blue, and it’s full of paints and jars, and hung and stacked paintings. Transparent and patterned shower curtains hang from the ceiling, and photos are taped to the walls and the refrigerator door. Everything is mingling and filmy; the imagery may put you mind of tissues and placentas and pregnancy. This is June’s bell jar, but she isn’t coming apart, she’s happy, moist and glowing — a woman in her own world, “creating.” (Later, after he’s met her, Griffin asks which gallery she sells through; she explains she doesn’t sell because she’s never finished with her work. These images are her feelings, and she’s never done feeling.) They talk and flirt. She explains that her strange last name — Gudmundsdottir — is Icelandic; there’s some banter about Greenland being icy and Iceland being green. Somehow the Red Sea is mentioned.

When he goes off to find the writer, Griffin thinks that what he wants is to make amends. (What we learn in the course of the film is that what he really wants is not to be bothered by his scruples anymore.) David Kahane, the writer Griffin finds, is loud, angry, and shabby — a perpetual grad-student type who is intent on his autobiographical movie idea about a student in Japan. The plot of the “The Player” turns on whether the studio is vulnerable to a Japanese takeover; Griffin and Kahane’s conversation mostly takes place at a Japanese karaoke restaurant/bar, where customers get on stage and, looking into a monitor and singing into a mike, perform to canned music, with a screen above them projecting MTV-like imagery and subtitles (“Why can’t we start over?”). Nearly everything in the film is doubled and tripled in this way. And the question of who owns the image is always being posed.

Kahane guesses that Griffin discovered his whereabouts from June, whom he refers to as “the ice queen.” Griffin doesn’t really flip until Kahane taunts him: Everyone knows Griffin can’t O.K. projects any more, that the new executive is supplanting him. When Griffin is fired, what will become of him? “I can write. What can you do?” yells Kahane. That’s when Griffin’s rage overcomes him; he kills the writer, holding his head in a puddle that reflects red light — the writer dies in a “red sea.”

Part of the reason the executives hate writers is that they depend on them; the writers actually come up with ideas. Altman sets up a writing-related satirical scheme; in this picture, the more you’re attached to writing, the more conscience-stricken and miserable you’re likely to be — and the more full of integrity. The unhappy story editor Bonnie is a “tragic” character; she gets more and more shut out as the movie goes along. Early on, Griffin himself stands up for writers at a meeting where the new hotshot is passing around an issue of the L.A. Times so he can show his finesse at improvising movie subjects from public (i.e., free) sources. Griffin watches the paper with dread; a small front-page headlines announces David Kahane’s death of the night before.

Altman uses a writer/director played by Richard E. Grant for contrast with Kahane. The Grant character broadcasts how uncompromising he is. His idea for a film, he’s quick to point out, requires no stars and an unhappy ending — because that’s how life is. He gets tearful when he tells his downbeat story, he moves himself so. He’s brilliant at using the appearance of daring, integrity, and passion: he’ll do well for himself. By the end of the “The Player,” he has turned his vision into an upbeat Julia Roberts/Bruce Willis vehicle. “The audience wrote this ending,” he exults.

Altman catches a central thing about Hollywood: Griffin, like all the other executives, is always at pains to manipulate “image” to make the most impressive possible statement about himself. The depiction of Hollywood life feels authentic — these people have enormous egos, yet they are wildly insecure; they don’t really have anything that’s theirs. Something is forever eluding them — the idea, the hit, the magic. So it’s always crucial to give the impression you possess the magic — everything becomes a matter of positioning, strategy, and one-upsmanship.

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“The Player” shares with Altman’s 1973 “The Long Goodbye” a breezy sense of humor about movie-fed foolishness and a distinctive view of corruption. Altman doesn’t overdo the corruption in either of these films: everything that counts can be bought and sold, yet the environment isn’t ominous. Inside and outside spill into each other, as they do in L.A. Altman’s camera zooms in, zooms back, changing position and focal length, moving from room to room, from inside to outside. This is a visual realization of what happens in your head when you spend time in L.A.: you stop worrying about what’s real and what’s not.

The two films also share a vision of L.A. as a make-believe city bedazzled by the movies. Yet “The Long Goodbye,” for all its sophistication and cynicism, has a little nostalgia for what people tend to think of as the “kind of movies Hollywood doesn’t make anymore” — with the old stars and the old glamour, with the “well-told stories” — essentially, escapist fantasies from the 1930s and 1940s. The Hollywood of “The Player” doesn’t have that depth or beauty, or that quality of fantasy. It doesn’t even seem to bother feeding its own myth. It’s simply a place sharp people exploit. The characters here aren’t square; they’re media-savvy, hip cynics — in this world, everyone’s become a connoisseur of self-reflexiveness. And there’s an extra layer of technology, technology within technology: car phones, faxes, phones in screening rooms. (When Griffin opens up his glove compartment and there’s a fax machine at work and it prints out a replica of a postcard, the Chinese boxes seem endless.) This is an environment where media competition and attention-getting have become the only activities anyone admits to believing in or standing by.

June the painter has no awareness at all of the movie business; it seems to strike her as little more than a glamorous lark. Courting her, Griffin takes her to a resort in Desert Hot Springs favored by film-business people because they’re kept anonymous there. “Do places like this really exist?” she says in delight. “Only in the movies,” he replies. The spas are glowing and blue, but they have been set among boulders and rocks; they have been given “natural”-seeming shapes. Let’s go into the water, June suggests. “You’re not really Icelandic,” guesses Griffin. “Oh, did I say that?” says June.

June’s acceptance of the surface and only the surface might seem like a form of brain damage in Europe; in L.A., it’s the city’s special form of grace. June makes it all up as she goes along; she plays with images. Apart from the cops, she’s the one character in the movie who isn’t in the film world; she’s the only character Altman doesn’t really satirize. (This makes her seem rather indefinite; and Scacchi seems to get only about halfway into the groove.) Many of June’s paintings have words and letters in them, stenciled (it seems), but very painterly, with drizzles and drips. Griffin asks June if she likes words, and she answers, “I like words. I like letters. Sentences I’m not crazy about.” Griffin is entranced; he is sprung loose from what binds him to words.

Griffin is completed by his involvement with June — the film world doesn’t make him crazy anymore. He has shaken free of his feelings of responsibility. He just doesn’t care, and that makes him a winner. He can play on the surface and not be dragged down by his conscience — this is seen, satirically, as a triumph. Getting away with murder becomes the most freeing event in his life.

Altman framed “M*A*S*H” with a p-a system, which was constantly making bungled announcements for old war movies that were going to be shown in a tent somewhere. In “The Player” he frames the action with posters for old crime pictures. They’re gaudy: the titles are amusingly “dramatic,” and the ad copy on them is hype from another era. “M*A*S*H” ends with the p-a system announcing a final movie, which turns out to be the one we’ve just seen. At the end of “The Player,” Griffin is driving home after a day at the office. He receives a call on his car phone and listens to a pitch from the writer who actually wrote him the postcards that filled him with terror; it’s the story of the movie we’ve just seen. The faceless writer could be any one of hundreds of writers who have pitched their movie ideas to Griffin. Is the writer blackmailing him? He might be, but Griffin is intrigued anyway: who cares where a marketable story comes from?

As he steers through the L.A. streets, Griffin is wearing a black suit with charcoal pinstripes. He has traded in his enclosed Range Rover for a black Rolls Royce convertible, and the vivid red leather interior glows in the sun. Griffin is happy and masterful. He drives up to his home and we’re given a shot of big lush red roses; through them we see a pregnant, radiant June welcoming him. The blue and white of the ice queen; the black of the demonic; the red of sexual excitement and fullness — even June’s dress has some red in it in addition to the usual blue and white. Griffin and June hug; male and female merge. This is American wedded bliss, Altman is saying good-naturedly: red, white, and blue against black.

It doesn’t seem to bother Altman much. Is one reason “The Player” doesn’t have a lot of bite that Altman just can’t take seriously the anguish of a vain young studio executive? Tim Robbins has gravity, focus, and a delight in being found silly; he manages to suggest that Griffin would dearly love people to believe that the thoughts he’s keeping to himself are dignified and impressive. And with his height (6’5″) and his huge baby’s head, Robbins is quite a camera subject. But Altman’s Griffin — the center of the film — is thin. The Griffin of the novel has evil in him, and the reader experiences the world as Griffin experiences it. Altman moves the malevolence out into the system generally, where it disperses and becomes a shared craziness.

Altman sees the current Hollywood as nothing but an absurd business based on fleecing people, empty even of the entertaining hucksterism of old. But Hollywood people don’t seem to take the movie as a hate letter to themselves; this satire of Hollywood is embraced by its targets. They can enjoy “The Player” because there’s nothing really adversarial about it. Altman is saying out loud what they all think and feel; his film jibes with their view of themselves. (It’s like the last Buñuel films, which tickled the haute bourgeoisie Buñuel once threatened with murder.) “The Player” doesn’t add up to much more than a very sleekly done roast — an amusing series of inside jokes choreographed around and through the familiar restaurants, offices, and parking lots. Altman isn’t fighting the business people. Now they can accept him as a master.

  • Here’s an audio interview Tony Macklin did with Robert Altman.
  • Altman in conversation with Charlie Rose.
  • I wrote a long piece celebrating Altman’s film “Nashville.”
  • I had a quick visit with Altman when his film “Vincent & Theo” was released.

©1992 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Film Quarterly.

“The Piano,” directed by Jane Campion

piano

Loose Talk

by Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill

Polly Frost: I can’t imagine anyone taking “The Piano” seriously, but I thought that as a silly movie it was on a level with “Beaches.” Holly Hunter plays Keith Jarrett-style music even though the film is set in the Victorian era. You get to see Harvey Keitel naked, sensitive, and in Maori makeup. He’s not the Bad Lieutenant anymore! Although I’m not sure I want the hero of my romantic fantasy to have feelings.

Ray Sawhill: Did you love it when, naked in the half-light, he caresses her piano because she’s not there?

PF: Of course. And I especially liked the idea of a guy working his way up under my hoop skirts to give me a lick.

RS: It’s an enduring feminist issue: the virtuous man eats pussy and likes it.

PF: I’m all for that. And when Harvey finally fucks her it’s important that it’s not from behind. They’re face to face, and he looks deep into her eyes … But not in that tedious way men have of trying to figure out whether you’ve come or not.

RS: I’m a big fan of the frontier movie where all the work you ever see being done is the occasional closeup of a log being split. And I did enjoy the way the Maoris sat around all day and communed with nature, taking breaks only to disparage Sam Neill’s manliness.

PF: In the movie, Maoris exist as nothing but elemental beings — they’re sort of like the mud. For all her feminist/deconstructionist airs, Jane Campion doesn’t have the most progressive view of “the other.” But mother and daughter communicating in sign language, being a woman corseted and then set free — I eat that stuff like candy.

RS: It’s really a self-conscious, upscale version of “Clan of the Cave Bear.” Holly Hunter is a member of a superior species, i.e., a modern woman. So she takes no part whatsoever in making a life on the frontier. She just goes around acting passionate, furious, and indignant.

PF: It’s pure supermarket Gothic, with an “I’m in charge” attitude. Men oppress women’s sexuality because they can’t deal with it. Women are the more sexual, and men chained women up, and now finally in the Nineties men are awakening to their place as secondary to women. Alright!

RS: What do you make of the fact that liberation is seen as marriage to a macho, sensitive guy?

PF: It’s as key in these new radical/retro fantasies as it was in the originals not to want to cheat on your husband. He has to drive you to it. Here, everything conspires to make her have an affair. Bliss.

RS: The movie seems to be like catnip for post-feminists. Harvey blackmails Holly in such a perfect “I’m so sorry I’m ravishing you, but I can’t help myself” kind of way. Women keep telling me they find the film quite haunting.

PF: Some of the imagery does have that “Seventh Seal” quality. Although any time you have people in dark clothes wandering around for no reason on a wild beach I guess it’s haunting.

RS: The piano, Holly’s feelings, and the sea, our great mother.

PF: But how do you actually feel about the film? Stop shifting in your chair so uncomfortably.

RS: I guess I find it frightening.

PF: Maybe the fantasy gets to you more than you want to admit.

RS: What I really find scary is how seriously women can take their fantasies. The Holly Hunter character is a Nineties woman-with-a-grievance dropped into an era that’s truly repressive. She’s mute because the world is so unjust — isn’t that what the bad hair-do and the bonnet and the angry slit of a mouth are about? At least a conventional romance would give us a panting beauty popping out of her bodice. The women who love the movie seem to want to believe that their desire for a romantic movie represents a threat to the status quo and that their sexual pleasure represents a political triumph. Guy fantasies are more often presented as cartoons you’re not meant to take seriously.

PF: Clint Eastwood really lets you take his recent movies lightly.

RS: But isn’t it true that many educated women like their romantic fantasies to be presented with a solemn, high-art aura? That’s what I find so terrifying.

PF: Campion is like Margaret Atwood and Naomi Wolf. They have temper tantrums over their right to enjoy the most routine female fantasies.

RS: Though there’s no avoiding the fact that Campion knows how to make an eccentric, threatening image. One after another, in fact, with no flow between them.

PF: These women feel guilty about their fantasies. Just have the fantasies!

RS: Campion is such a bad director of actors. Holly Hunter seems to have decided that her character’s muteness means that she should never change her facial expression.

PF: Sam Neill is a wonderful actor, but the film emasculates him. He’s even called “dry balls” by the Maori at the very start of the film.

RS: And what is it about feminists and the Victorian age?

PF: Basically what it is is that women who like these movies go around in Laura Ashley dresses.

RS: Holly’s muteness, her hands reaching into that box to finger the keyboard, the nailed-up windows and doors — it’s all that tediousness about being “denied a voice.”

PF: It’s OK, you can calm down — the movie’s over. The honest film about women, sex and imprisonment is “Mrs. Soffel.” Gillian Armstrong just films what she wants to film as a woman. She doesn’t justify it at all.

RS: Maybe that’s why Armstrong’s “The Last Days of Chez Nous” is even scarier than “The Piano.” What is it that makes Campion such a perfect subject for journalists? I’ve never seen a single pan of any of her movies.

PF: It’s the whole Spike Lee thing — she writes out their copy for them. Campion plays at inspiration but she never allows it to take her over. Ray?

RS: Yeah?

PF: You’d look good in Maori makeup.

©1993 by Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.

“Malcolm X,” directed by Spike Lee

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Malcolm Zzzzzzzzzz

By Ray Sawhill

With his underslung jaw, his 6’4″ lean-and-hungry build, and the fury in his eyes, the real Malcolm X was unquestionably a star. He had a triumphant, gritty voice and worked a crowd close-in, relishing the tumult. He may not always have made a lot of sense, but you could see what delighted blacks and frightened whites; on a stage, he was an angry, defiant turn-on.

Alas, Denzel Washington, who plays the role in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X,” just isn’t riveting. There’s nothing behind his restraint — he’s in control, but of nothing. He doesn’t get a rapport going with the audiences he speaks to (and Lee makes counterproductive whoopee with the camera and the editing scissors during the speeches). For all the bravado of the opening credits — which play over footage from the videotape of the beating of Rodney King, intercut with an image of an American flag burning until it’s shaped like the “X” on an “X” hat — the movie isn’t fiery. It’s a stolid civics lesson, complete with heavenly choir. There are a few hippity-hop, disjunctive editing tricks, some overhead shots that are “unusual” in a familiar way, and that cross-angled mustard light that Lee and his cinematographer Ernest Dickerson seem to like. But otherwise the filmmaking is mainstream. Only the length (three hours and 21 minutes) and an occasional freedom in the way it ribs blacks suggest the film is anything more than the usual worthy docudrama. The end features little black schoolchildren (first in America, then in South Africa) standing up at their desks, one after the other, to announce, “I’m Malcolm X.” (Study guides and Malcolm X book jackets are being provided to high schools in the 100 largest U.S. urban areas.)

Lee has based the movie almost entirely on “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” which was written by Alex Haley, who completed it after Malcolm X was murdered in 1965. (Lee revised a nearly 20-year-old script by Arnold Perl and James Baldwin.) Among some groups, this “autobiography,” like Malcolm’s speeches, has taken on the aspect of a religious text, with exegesis-happy scholars and fans quarreling about what Malcolm really meant, what his stand really was. Lee has committed himself to putting the material across not as drama but as truth — we’re meant to accept Malcolm’s view of himself reverently, every step of the way. (It’s embellished with a few twists, such as CIA men following Malcolm on his tour of the mid-East, and the FBI tapping his phone.)

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What we’re given is the Malcolm legend. When Malcolm is a child, his family is destroyed by whites. He tailspins off into a life of crime and cheap thrills, bottoming out in jail, where he finds his personal hell and is given the nickname “Satan.” He pulls himself together with the help of the Nation of Islam, which encourages him to blame all his troubles on whites, and he achieves fame giving voice to his race’s rage and demands. After 12 years he becomes disillusioned with the Nation’s leadership and quits the organization; he becomes an ordinary Muslim, visits Mecca and realizes it’s OK to be any color. Wiser and more humble, he’s martyred by the Nation of Islam followers he himself had once fired up.

Spike Lee begins with the street years and proceeds straight ahead, using incidents to trigger off flashbacks to Malcolm’s childhood. He mimics Malcolm’s development in his filmmaking. The street years come with daddy-o colors and sassy crane shots; the prison section is shot in end-of-the-road blue-grays. The Nation of Islam passage has “Godfather”-style dignity and solemnity; the tour of the Holy Lands is a Barbet Schroeder-style spiritual travelogue; the troubled final year is paranoid and portentous (it’s the Oliver Stone section). The flashbacks — which are meant to explain Malcolm’s drives — are “Birth of a Nation” racist nightmares.

“The Autobiography” has push and heat — Malcolm X and Alex Haley tell good tales. But you can sense that the stories have been brightened up, and the lessons Malcolm X draws from them often have little to do with the experiences he describes. As one flamboyant tale follows the next, what comes together is a man’s view of his life as a superhero myth. Essentially, the film is the autobiography, recapped 27 years later, with considerably less flair. Yet Lee obviously wants people to accept his movie as factually accurate.

In the film, as in the book, we’re asked to accept Malcolm’s conversion to the Nation of Islam as a genuine religious experience; Lee gives Malcolm a literal vision. Yet when Malcolm quits the faith on discovering that Elijah Mohammed, the Nation’s leader, is a hypocrite — Elijah has been screwing secretaries while demanding near-celibacy from his followers — he doesn’t spend a single day thinking to himself, “Whew, what a fool I’ve been.” He doesn’t ask himself: “What was it about me that made me so vulnerable to that line of baloney?” At hour one, we’re meant to feel tender awe at the faith, and to be impressed by its insights; at hour three we’re meant to see the faith as corrupt and crazy.

The film doesn’t question Malcolm’s sincerity either; we’re meant to find his disillusionment as genuine as his conversion. He’s always aggressively heading off in some new direction, as certain of this one as he was of the last. It’s such an odd passage when he’s grappling with the fact of Elijah’s hypocrisy that you almost think the message of the movie must be, “Don’t go getting involved with weird religious cults.” Yet when Malcolm’s racial views shift and, after all those 12 years of preaching that the “white man” is the devil, he decides that it doesn’t matter what your skin color is, there’s no indication that he regrets leading his followers astray. Sometimes it seems as if what was inspiring about him was his inconsistency.

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In the film, as in the Malcolm-Haley account, Malcolm’s father was a strong, very dark Marcus Garveyite who was terrorized and finally killed by whites; his mother was a proud, light-colored woman whose family was ripped apart by the social welfare agencies; Malcolm’s schooling came at the hands of abusive whites. But a recent (and very sympathetic) biography, “Malcolm” by Bruce Perry (Station Hill Press), suggests that while Malcolm certainly did suffer from white racism as a child, most of his pain originated in his family.

Malcolm’s father never earned enough money to support a family, and this was a family with 10 kids. He beat them, and beat his wife; he was also, one family friend told Perry, “a natural born whoremonger.” He didn’t die tied to streetcar tracks by white men in black hoods and robes, as the film would have it. Perry shows that he stormed out of the house after an argument, missed his step getting on a streetcar and fell under it.

Malcolm escaped most of his father’s brutality but was beaten by his mother so hard his screaming could be heard by neighbors. (And his family didn’t live in a city apartment; they lived in the country.) Malcolm wasn’t ripped from his mother by welfare workers; with another brother, he tried to get the authorities to send him to reform school (“we heard they had good beds there,” recalls the brother). Malcolm grew up largely among whites; if his enemies and rivals as children were white, so were his playmates and friends. He was teased and put down by some whites; other whites fed him when he was hungry and fought and played alongside him. Light-skinned and red-haired, he also got teased and put down whenever he was in a black neighborhood, where kids called him “Snowflake” and “Eskimo.”

The Malcolm of myth — hard, uncompromising, defiant, manly (yet ever “evolving”) — is fuelled by a rage that is very pure; he stirred up other people’s rage, too, and made them feel exalted by it. (This seems to be what people mean when they say he “gave them hope.”) Malcolm’s late “tolerant” phase wasn’t what it’s sometimes meant to be: what he said was that some whites were OK with him — whites, that is, “who had accepted the religion of Islam.”

In one scene, when Malcolm has become a top leader of the Nation of Islam, a black man is injured by police; Malcolm leads a crowd of blacks to the hospital to insist he get proper treatment. A cop (Peter Boyle) orders him to disperse the crowd; Malcolm resists, then, when it suits him, he makes a tiny sign with his hand, and the mass of people breaks up, the Muslims in their hats and overcoats marching off in perfect order. Denzel Washington shows a minuscule twinkle of satisfaction, and Boyle marvels, “That’s too much power for one man to have.” I understand the joy blacks may feel at seeing a black man fling it right back at “the white man,” and I can enjoy a “kiss my ass, honky” gesture. But the film is too pleased by violence cockily and righteously contained, and that twinkle undercuts the idea we’re mean to have of Malcolm having achieved egolessness.

I found myself interpreting the material differently than we seemed meant to. Early on, Malcolm is invited by a big-time crook to sit across from him at a table in a dark restaurant; the crook winds up taking Malcolm on as a hood-in-training. The scene is balanced by a later one. Malcolm has become a Nation of Islam leader; he’s drinking coffee with assistants in a diner, and an eager young boy who has seen him and wants to join up begs his way to the table. It’s hard to know what’s intended — are we just meant to recognize that Malcolm has found some success? But we’re also left wondering: did Malcolm just want to be a bigwig all along? Did he fail at crime but find his niche in the religion game?

Malcolm’s life suggests that he was trying to create, by himself and in himself, his own idea of a father — his idea of manliness. As a young man — before he joined the Nation of Islam — Malcolm beat a number of his girlfriends (this is not in the film) and chased after white women. (In the film, he has one white girlfriend.) He had a drive to control women that apparently took a new form when he joined the Nation. Moviegoers may find the film’s images of womanly submission really alarming. Malcolm’s wife calls him Dear Heart, and says things like, “Even when you’re not with me, you’re with me.” At one rally, a huge banner hangs from some columns — we’re shown it several times. The text reads, We Must Protect Our Most Valuable Property, Our Women. The men in their gray suits, white shirts and skinny dark ties sit on one side of the stage or the auditorium; the women, in their white robes and shawls, sit on the other. Visually, these ranks of sex-segregated automatons may be effective in suggesting lives cleaned up and set in order. But it’s still hard to take.

You don’t have to accept the myth to find the actual Malcolm a fascinating character. But what we’re being asked to watch is an epic about a Chosen One, and the uninspired moviemaking works against the mythology. Spike Lee will need a lot of help from the press and the Malcolm Industry to keep people talking about his movie. Lee hasn’t found a way to give the movie a present-day bite, either. He offers a Sixties view of things: white equals oppressor equals bad, black equals oppressed equals good. Presented to us in the Nineties — when the press would rather accept the Malcolm myth than get into touchy areas, and a black ad agency is helping Warners create a “groundswell of positive word of mouth” about the film — this view seems preposterous and inadequate.

malcolm x2

Denzel Washington was impressive in Richard Attenborough’s “Cry Freedom” and in “A Soldier’s Story,” directed by the Canadian Norman Jewison. The characters he played had reserves. You could see that they were choosing what they said and what they did from a range of possibilities; when they lashed out, the violence came from a source that you could feel demanded release. The characters Spike Lee creates don’t have inner lives. At one point Norman Jewison was on the verge of making “Malcolm X”; Spike Lee caused a public uproar about the supposed inappropriateness of a non-American white man making the film, and Jewison withdrew from the project. Did Lee think that being black was all he needed to connect with his character and his audience?

In Lee’s first feature, “She’s Gotta Have It,” he showed a relaxed impudence. I saw it with a mostly black audience that laughed at some jokes I didn’t even identify as jokes; they also enjoyed being teased about black traits and habits. But his next film, the college comedy-musical “School Daze,” was a self-conscious, chaotic piece of in-your-faceness, with a joyless central character who, in the final scene, rang the school bell and yelled, right into the camera, at close range, over and over, “Wake up! Wake up!” Spike Lee has been ringing that bell and hollering at the camera ever since. As a self-publicist, he’s in a class with Madonna; they think like magazine editors, pushing hot buttons and goosing you along with graphics and outrageousness even as what they’re packaging gets thinner. Lee has stopped being an entertainer/artist and has become an entrepreneur/haranguer; he has turned himself into a marketer of superficially radical ideas and attitudes. As he has assumed the mantle of savvy firebrand/spokesman for his race, all the shadings (and the humor) have gone out of his filmmaking. Everything is black or white.

©1992 Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.

“The Funeral,” directed by Juzo Itami

funeral2

The Sound of Flowers Burning, and Other Ghost Properties

By Ray Sawhill

Juzo Itami’s “Tampopo,” the second film he directed but the first to be released in the U.S., conveys a child’s delight in splashing food around and a happy director’s delight in playing with movie conventions and genres. It’s free-form, bright-colored and high-flying. “The Funeral” — his first movie as a director, although it only recently opened in America — is relatively subdued and even-toned. It’s so well-mannered that some may take it as a generic exercise in estheticized comic melancholy. But you may find it enjoyably peculiar, as I did: quiet and spare, yet lustrous and inviting. It has the quality of certain jokes that you repeat to yourself time and time again, wondering why you enjoy them so much. Itami, who is said to be an expert cook, has designed his film to be a passing, melting pleasure, experienced most fully in the savoring of it. Like “Tampopo,” “The Funeral” seems meant to turn you into a gourmand and a food critic, only in this film, resonances and aftertastes are what Itami orchestrates.

The film is narrated by a successful middle-aged actor, who is married to an actress he sometimes works with. In the opening scenes, her father, who lives in a country home near the ocean with her mother, has a bad heart attack. He pulls himself over the floor to the porch; when his wife finds him there, he explains that he was trying to get a look at the ocean — that the sight of it had helped him over such spells before. A few days later, in the hospital, he dies. The film’s skeleton is a chronicle of the ceremonies — and the preparations and worries that attend them — during the three days that follow. Laced in and around these basics are a variety of mild farce elements: a cranky older brother, a naughty mistress, eccentric neighbors, confusion about roles.

You can sense that everything in the film is presented in relation to ritual even though you don’t always know what the rituals are — like the characters, we learn about them as we go along. The acting milieu and the stage set-like house (whose rooms lend themselves to being seen two or three at a time) help give the film a backstage-farce vivacity; Itami has been an actor himself, and he’s especially good at using performances to bring out the flavors of locales and situations.

These ingredients are like glimmers that draw you into watching, or dreaming about, what’s going on down below: in this case, a tone poem that is a meditation on the dispersal of form. (Being drawn through the chronicle and farce creates its own awareness of dispersal.) Itami has shot and recorded his film so that there’s always something about the surfaces that makes you lose yourself in what’s beneath them. Everything — even new, pop objects — seems to have a patina, and a succulent, hand-rubbed richness: the sheen of wood, leather and flesh are especially vivid.

The blacks, like the blacks in “The Conformist” and “The Makioka Sisters,” are warm, active. Here, they’re in correspondence with another, deeper layer: a shadow black. The sounds unfold themselves for our delectation: the sound of hair being brushed, the ringing of a ritual bell (percussion, clang, tone, buzz, etc.); the sound of flowers burning, of rain pelting first a nylon umbrella and then a paper umbrella. One quick, stunning effect occurs when a furnace fire ignites: Fwoof! — and a room’s paper windows thwack and crinkle outwards with the pressure.

A Buddhist priest, who arrives in a white Rolls and who lights up at the sight of tabletops inlaid with French tiles, is played by Chishu Ryu, and the Ozu echo must be deliberate — Itami’s film suggests a loose, appreciative look at a late Ozu picture. But it has an element of the random and erotic, of darting play, that’s lacking in Ozu: Itami wants to convey his pleasure in the processes that give rise to and sustain ritual and performance. There’s life washing around the whole time, like static around a clear signal: kids tussling, people’s feet tiring as they squat on their knees, friends arriving to help out with food and chores. Itami is bringing us into contact with ghost presences, letting us swim among crisscrossing impulses. The layers reveal themselves and return you to the next surface.

The film’s events strike your mind like stones striking water, and watching the ripples expand and mingle can be very pleasurable. Several shots are from the point of view of the corpse. Through his eyes, so to speak, we watch his family bend over to peer at him, and we see the coffin lid lowered and two small doors opened to permit viewing. These shots, and several others like them, are grotesque jokes, but they’re held longer than we expect, and are repeated until we become familiar with them. They’re like the sound of that ritual bell — ours to wander around in.

They’re also reminders of a great shot in Dreyer’s “Vampyr,” and expressions of a feeling that so long as the physical vessel exists, the spirit continues to dwell within it. In other scenes we’re given a moving-through-a-tunnel effect. The camera precedes the hearse as it moves along narrow, wall-bound roads, over which trees close in; it rides the coffin into the furnace. By the time the crematorium chimney pours forth its smoke, and the widow, actor and actress burn the ceremony’s used bric-a- brac in a barrel, we may find ourselves thinking about how we are both chambers and enclosures.

Two scenes rise up out of what the other scenes flow into, and with a kind of blind force. One involves the actor and his mistress. The young woman, who has arrived with the mourners and who has grown drunk and resentful, lures him into a wooded area. She seductively exposes her neck to him, taunts him, and finally incites him into sex. Afterwards, he falls and muddies himself trying to fetch a bauble she’s lost. She laughs happily; he slaps her but she keeps on laughing — she’s tickled by the trouble she has caused him.

During the other scene, some members of the family happen upon a behind-the-scenes room at the crematorium. They look through a viewing hole in the furnace and see the corpse burning, and they talk to a technician about his job. This likable man, who bowed to the furnace before lighting it, tells about his dreams, and about his fears that one day a body he has put in the furnace won’t yet be dead. (We can know little about death; all we are empowered to do is become specialists in the rituals attendant on it.) A glen, hot with glowing chlorophyll and insects; the guts of a kind of factory — these scenes take place in realms where ritual, at least as we can know it, is supported and made possible.

The film’s tone edges towards comedy and then dissolves. What we grow familiar with is a rhythm of gathering, tensing, and then dispersing into a new set of forms. American audiences are used to a fantasy that there is some realm we can get to where we can be happy, powerful gods — a domain that’s often symbolized, at least in audio-visual terms, by dance numbers, car chases, gunplay, couples splashing in the California surf.

Itami’s assumption seems to be that it is part of the nature of identity to be dissatisfied with given forms, and that all that is available to us is a release into something about which we can know only that it has its own form; all energy and matter can hope to do is metamorphose. (He directs as though he believes that this can be achieved only via a heightening of our awareness of form — via something like fetishism. He’s as concerned with fetishism as De Palma, yet there’s nothing very obsessive in his way of seeing, and nothing very bound-in about the film. Fetishism, in the world of this film, is just what happens when you tighten your focus and begin to bear down.)

You begin to picture a life (or a movie) as a gathering of energy and matter, a channeling of them through space and time, and a final dispersal into something we can know nothing about. The film’s approach and style express the conviction that there’s an equivalence between ritual’s place in behavior, the body’s place in experience and form’s place in acting and art — that for all their drawbacks, ritual, the body and form are what make sensation possible.

There’s nothing overbearing or strict about Itami’s work; he’s an entertainer, and he deals with ideas by nicking them as he passes by, making them spin. They’re part of the show. A joke is “resolved” in a way characteristic of the film near the end. All along, the husband has been expected to give a talk about the deceased at a final dinner, and while he’s being introduced, his eyes are glassy and his knee twitches; this actor suffers from stage fright. But the widow indicates that she’d like to speak instead. The actor relaxes and the audience laughs; he has been given a reprieve.

The widow talks quietly about her regret that she wasn’t able to be present as her husband died; she was kept out of the room by the crush of doctors and nurses, and she is afraid that he may have been lonely. She talks about her feeling that her husband’s nature has changed, about a feeling she has that he and she have entered a new phase together. The camera moves in on her slowly, then cuts to a closeup. We understand that this is her discreet public acknowledgment of the momentousness of what she’s going through. (Watching her is like realizing that a local, family-owned store you’ve been planning to patronize has changed hands.)

Yet the camera’s exposure is set more for the brightness outdoors than indoors — the light on her face is grey and dim — and even as we take in her tiny, worn face and her struggle with her feelings and words, our vision is drawn past her and through the large window behind. We can see the porch and the green of trees, and we sense the presence of the ocean beyond, the sight of which the dying man hoped would heal his heart. “The Funeral” is about rituals that release the spirit, about giving up the ghost. It offers its own to us as a gift.

©1986 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Film Quarterly.

“Disclosure,” directed by Barry Levinson

disclosure

By Ray Sawhill

“Disclosure,” from Michael Crichton’s potboiler, is a facsimile of an absorbing movie. It’s a humanoid with a heart of silicon that has been sheathed alluringly and made to perform some fluid dance steps. The crisis-in-the-workplace atmosphere is what’s most original about the movie. You’re drawn to notice the way a secretary avoids her boss’s eyes when she knows something she doesn’t want to tell him. You wonder what that group down by the elevator could have been meeting about at this time of day.

The director, Barry Levinson, has fitted the film out with an oil-rubbed, yuppie opulence — weathered wood and time-worn brick, lush Pacific Northwest greenery. Ennio Morricone’s score supplies a suave version of old-fashioned movie-music warmth and grandeur. “Disclosure” may be for audiences that ask only for something a little more movielike — bigger, more adult — than the TV they usually watch. But it’s a handsome, professional job.

Demi Moore is Meredith, a lustrous package of calves, thighs, greed and cleavage, wrapped in a power suit. Michael Douglas is Tom, a roll-up-your-sleeves family man. Both are employees of a Seattle computer firm. They had an affair back when Tom was single; now she gets the promotion he was hoping for, and she becomes his boss. She invites him to a meeting in her new office. “You’ve kept in good shape, Tom,” she says with throaty appreciation; then she comes on to him mercilessly. From there on out, it’s dueling accusations, and Tom’s struggle to keep his job and protect his family. No, not just that, but to establish the truth, goddammit.

We know Tom deserves his righteousness because we’re shown his kids, his matronly wife, and his iconic home: fireplace, cushions, warm lights, comforters. We know Meredith is evil because she works out on a Stairmaster, and because we never see her at home. All she has in her fridge, we’re told, is an orange and some champagne.

The company’s building (designed by Neil Spisak) is the film’s central showpiece and metaphor. It’s a matter of PC networks, black steel and leather, slipped into an arches-and-fluted-columns, renovated industrial space, with an atrium that’s like a small opera hall. It’s a stylish beehive, a pull-off-your-tie workplace. It’s also sliced up by panels of glass, and it’s unnervingly well-wired — i.e., watch your back. The audience murmurs when Tom starts receiving mysterious e-mails, and when, after a career of keeping his office open, he begins swinging his glass door shut.

Friends tell me they enjoy Crichton’s overcaffeinated-but-not-too-gonzo pacing, and the enthusiasm in the press for his current TV series, “ER,” has focused on its pace. “It’s an adrenaline rush of velocity, trauma, pathos and heroism,” wrote Rick Marin in Newsweek. “It’s like channel surfing without having to hit the remote.”

Information overload isn’t my idea of entertainment — I get enough of it at work — but I also have other problems with Crichton. He has zero sensuality and no descriptive powers. He has a way with pop hooks, but the novels seem to consist of nothing but research, coincidences, and downtime. In his novel “Congo,” the loopiest of the bunch (to be released in movie form this summer), he piles on the jaw-droppers — he subjects his jungle-explorer heroes to a political revolution, cannibals, killer gorillas, angry hippos, and a volcano that’s ready to blow. It’s a high-tech “Tarzan,” minus campiness and sexiness.

A mixture of technocrat and Dr. Frankenstein, Crichton projects the mechanical onto the organic; he’s fascinated by people hooked up to life-support systems. Where does the person end and the machine begin, and vice versa? If he has a theme, that’s it. The central image of his work is an ID card being run through a slot, and providing ingress to a fancy lab.

I’ve sped through a number of his books, but the only two I’ve sped through happily are the most recent, “Rising Sun” and “Disclosure.” In them he’s gone from futuristic cautionary claptrap to torn-from-the-headlines cautionary claptrap, and he’s become an angry man, an op-ed novelist. The topicality and fire give filmmakers something to contend with. The director of “Rising Sun,” Philip Kaufman, did a lot of script tweaking and creative casting, and made a film that was a hip, off-hand comedy about multiculturalism, as well as an essay about the dissolution of the movie image.

Barry Levinson works more broadly, and in square, showbusiness terms; his work has gone into making things smooth and acceptable. It’s a creamy example of contemporary Hollywood retrofitting. Levinson and his screenwriter, Paul Attanasio, have made the film more balanced than the book. In the novel, for instance, Tom’s wife is a feminist shrew who leaves town with the kids for the duration of the brouhaha; in the movie she sticks around to witness, suffer, and be loyal.

But, like Kaufman, Levinson is also writing an essay, in his case about what movies have become. It’s a joke about how work-obsessed the country is that, as for the homey but high-tech Seattle, all we get — aside from some cityscapes and a little time on the ferries — is a single sequence. The company’s CEO (Donald Sutherland) is driving Douglas to a hearing, and is trying to con him into a deal. We see the city reflected in the car’s windows.

Michael Douglas’ peevishness and flabby sarcasm don’t put off the audience. Moore’s lack of stature and tenacity don’t either. You could criticize the film by saying that no sparks fly between Douglas and Moore, even in their operatic near-coitus scene, but Douglas doesn’t lose face playing the anguished virgin. A man who waits until after the cock-sucking and panty-ripping to pull himself away from a woman should be a joke, and some members of the audience do giggle. But they don’t give up on the film. Moore and Douglas have been in hits and on the covers of magazines, thus they’re stars, and thus they have sex appeal.

Levinson seems aware that Douglas and Moore are simulacra. (Most of the rest of the cast is loose and funny.) They’re what we build films around today, he’s saying, as we build films around Crichton’s flow-chart plots. The filmmaker’s role is to customize these elements to the audience’s preference, to dress the robot. (In fact, you read Moore’s character by her clothes: is it charcoal miniskirts and stiletto heels today, or a severe pantsuit?) Levinson is half going along with this, and half taking note of it.

It’s heartening that almost no one in the press has gotten worked up about the reversal on the usual sex-harassment pattern. No one except The New York Times’ Caryn (Dial-a-Theme-Piece) James, that is. She argues that the film unconsciously expresses men’s fear of powerful women, and she includes the inevitable reference to Anita Hill. Her editors obligingly ran a photo of Hill taking the oath.

It’s one of the funnier assumptions many writers on pop culture make, that a (for instance) committee-created artifact costing tens of millions of dollars is likely to express much of anything unconsciously. The fact is that no one leaves the theater after “Disclosure” discussing, or arguing about, sexual harassment. (What they talk about is how sweaty the “C’mon, let’s do it!” “No, I mustn’t!” scene is.) Women in the audience have no trouble hissing Meredith, Demi Moore’s character. You’d think Caryn James would be happy that it’s now OK for a woman to be the powerful villain. But then, Caryn James — quick to use feminist ideology as a substitute for thinking and responding — is the Meredith of film reviewers.

When, in earlier movies, the hero entered deeper realms — entrails — in search of truth, he usually found himself in caves, basements, abandoned factories, a sewer system. Here, he enters a virtual-reality database. The populist feelings the movie targets concern jobs, computers and bosses — especially anger at the way jobs are taking up more of our lives, yet are becoming more unstable. The film’s glamour and suspense have to do with our sense that we’re sacrificing our time and our personalities to the exciting, mysterious microchip god.

Like “Fatal Attraction,” “Disclosure” does one of those things pop movies are supposed to do, but do rarely, which is give us something recognizable that we don’t get from more serious work. In “Fatal Attraction,” it was the archetype of the dangerously-crazy, 45ish, unattached career woman. In “Disclosure,” it’s a sense of the way the boundaries between our personal lives and our jobs are eroding, and how much we resent that. The film’s limitation is that Tom, the hands-on guy we identify with, is involved in making computers, and there’s no irony about his complicity in making machines that will distance us from direct experience yet one more step.

Meredith, alluring and ruthless, yet empty, is one of those automatons Crichton finds sexy yet warns us against. If Crichton were an artist rather than a moralist-entertainer, he’d admit that Meredith isn’t just his enemy — she’s also his muse.

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

“Death Becomes Her,” directed by Robert Zemeckis

death becomes her

By Ray Sawhill

Meryl Streep’s performance in Robert Zemeckis’ new movie “Death Becomes Her” doesn’t wipe out memories of the hours of classy boredom she’s inflicted — instead, it makes amusing use of them. As a dragon-lady star of stage and screen, Streep scrawls nasty things on “Meryl Streep,” the A-student. (In all fairness, it must be admitted that for several pictures — “She-Devil,” “Postcards from the Edge,” “Defending Your Life” — she has been trying to subvert her image.) An immaculate performer, she doesn’t have the messiness or the subterranean qualities that true popular stars have. Here, her performance is like a Mad magazine parody of a Streep performance, only she’s giving it herself — and she has edge and dirt. You can finally see what people who saw her on stage have always said they saw — a sense of fun. She may be constitutionally incapable of cutting loose; even her yowls and hisses are impeccably modulated. But her control is part of the joke, and she seems wise to it.

“Death Becomes Her” is a striking horror comedy about glamour and the desire for eternal youth — an enjoyably malicious Hollywood act of self-desecration. Streep is the aging star; Goldie Hawn is the dormouse best friend, whose fiancés Streep keeps stealing. They play female drag queens, scrapping to the death over a guy who isn’t worth it (and who knows he isn’t worth it) — a plastic surgeon played by Bruce Willis. Isabella Rossellini, in a low-slung sarong and Salomé necklaces, is a siren with an elixir that defies time and aging. Her presence, with its echoes of cosmetic ads and of her mother, kicks the movie into fantasyland.

The screenwriters, David Koepp and Martin Donovan, have described their script as “Night of the Living Dead as Noel Coward would have done it” — it’s pure camp ghoulishness and bitchiness. Robert Zemeckis’ direction is all boyish exuberance and technological hi-jinks. Zemeckis, who is known for his mock-heroic, Moebius-strip action comedies such as “Used Cars” and the “Back to the Future” series, goes for debonair comic poise. But the film still has its rambunctiousness — it’s like an Ealing comedy as the young Steven Spielberg might have directed it.

As a failure who’s out of his league, half-boozed and skidding around corners, Willis doesn’t just play against type. He creates a convincingly small man with ordinary failings and wholesome goals; he’d like to live out a Capra film but he’s caught up in a Puccini opera. Goldie’s a joy in her scenes with Meryl when they’ve made up after their feuds — they’re girls together again, finishing each other’s sentences. And when Goldie’s weight balloons in misery — itself a joke on the actress’s obvious fanaticism about her figure — she seems inspired. If she’s not as successful in her other scenes, this isn’t just because her own features have clearly gotten some surgical tune-ups but because she hasn’t figured out a Phyllis Diller-like way of acknowledging and enjoying the improvement. On some level she’s still hoping we won’t notice.

Zemeckis plays with elements straight out of horror films: turrets, mirrors, shadows, fireplaces, arches, thunder and lightning. It’s “Kane” and it’s “Frankenstein,” with the iconography used not for depth and resonance (however pseudo), but cartoonishly. (And the special effects are used for L.A.-gothic shivers.) Zemeckis, the misanthropic puppet-master — the filmmaker as mad-scientist/cartoonist — is too cold-hearted to achieve beauty, but he gives the film a spooky, layered, visual splendiferousness. He wraps the action in oversized marble staircases and columns that are a parody of Hollywood postmodern/baronial luxe. They’re meant to contrast with the characters’ pettiness and narcissism. This epic décor is a joke about how the glamour factory is also a horror factory where people try to turn themselves into monuments to themselves. The composer Alan Silvestri partners Zemeckis, heightening the already-overdone Hollywood thing and making it even more absurdly grand.

Zemeckis has the soul of a mid-American media-junkie kid. He’s frankly in love with speed and cheapness, over-the-top-ness, camera hysteria, genre clichés — with the vulgarity of film, and with the ways movies can overstimulate us. His style expresses the uncontrollable enthusiasm of a small boy turned on by the huge movie image and engulfing music.

But the film’s combination of wit and physicality unnerves some people, as though you ought to be allowed only one or the other. These people find Zemeckis’ perversity and excitement an assault; they want to be asked to care for the characters on screen. Zemeckis never asks you to believe in what he’s showing you; in his films, human values exist only to be mocked.

Zemeckis excites us, then needles our responsiveness to the movie image — not for an art effect, but strictly for our entertainment. He’s a companionable sadist. Like Joe Dante and Brian De Palma, Zemeckis can seem crude, dumb and childish to Europeans, and to people who cling to European-style notions about art and seriousness. He’s the opposite of an art movie-maker; the tradition he’s working in is of overbright commercial entertainment. Yet in “Used Cars” and “Death Becomes Her,” he provokes some of the same responses Buñuel sometimes did. (It’s another sign of how well-digested “revolutionary” as an aesthetic criterion has become that people who have learned to appreciate surrealism and to talk with approval of its revolutionary intent get riled by “Death Becomes Her.”)

Zemeckis gives viewers no moral vision to hang onto; putting over his cartoon effects is his only morality. Streep’s noggin gets bopped and her neck breaks and hinges over backwards, leaving her head hanging upside down between her shoulder blades. Goldie Hawn rises from being shot, angry as hell and with a hole a foot wide in her gut. It’s cheerfully gruesome and macabre — pop Buñuel.

“Death Becomes Her” is such a rowdy hunk of polished malevolence that it made American media people fret and freak when it was released this summer. It’s a kick watching the hypersensitivities erupt — adults grow touchy about the things they threw darts at as kids. Variety’s scorecard of critics’ reactions showed 14 negative and only five positive reviews. David Denby proclaimed from on high, or least in New York magazine, that it was all he could do to refrain from calling the film the worst big-budget movie he’d ever seen: “anxiety, loathing and self-hatred gush from its pores,” he thundered. (When evil needs crushing Denby’s your man.) Even the people who devised the publicity campaign felt it necessary for the ads to spell out that the film is a black comedy.

Perhaps just raising the topic of women and aging is enough to put some people in the mood not to laugh, and to make them find a film cruel to its women characters. It’s probably no use pointing out that the film is cruel to everyone, and that’s the fun — pleasure in amoral vindictiveness is not the kind of fun these people want from a movie. Of course Zemeckis sees his women as monsters. But he’s also tickled by their overblown crass vitality and their cut-throat determination to have things their way. The plastic surgeon, who wants to live out a normal lifespan and redeem himself with humane works, is cackled at. He’s a sucker, a softie who wants to do good — he’s like the people in the audience who are horrified by the film.

Zemeckis apparently lacks the desire to do anything elevated in tone. (He’s an anti-do-gooder.) But it may be that his mean-spiritedness is what gives him staying power and keeps his work enjoyable. He has made a few films some of us have regarded as duds (“Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”, “Back to the Future II”); he has asked us to care about his characters a few times (“Romancing the Stone,” “Back to the Future”); and this film has some glitches of logic. But throughout the whole of his career (it began in 1978 with “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”), he has never once romanticized his feelings, not even his feelings about movies.

Cheerfully lowbrow, Zemeckis’ pictures can be wonderfully complicated and suggestive. “Death Becomes Her” may get you thinking about how the overlapping themes of time-travel and of bringing the dead back to life are among the most potent themes of pop movies. And, like all his films, it’s full of screens, reflections, frames and projections. You could set a team of grad students to work on such topics as “Zemeckis’ use of blue-screen effects,” or “the foreground/background joke,” or “contraptions, toys and models as metaphors for the filmmaking process,” or “old movie cannibalization and the new movie image,” and keep them busy for years. But Zemeckis doesn’t get poetic; he gets the giggles. His hall of mirrors is located at the suburban multiplex.

©1992 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.

“Misson to Mars,” directed by Brian De Palma

Space Rhapsody

mission to mars01

By Ray Sawhill

Last Saturday, after a week of media-free living in Mexico, my wife and I walked into a San Diego movie theater, where we watched a new science fiction picture in the company of a modest crowd. At first I was intrigued by its quiet tone. Some awkward moments made me worry that the film might lose its audience, but the crowd remained attentive. Then some passages of extraordinary beauty and daring took me another step in. By the film’s end I was quite moved. I spent the rest of the evening happily babbling about what the movie had made me feel and think.

The movie was Brian De Palma’s “Mission to Mars,” and only when we arrived in New York and I tuned back into the media did I learn what readers who follow the press’s coverage of movies already know — that “Mission to Mars” got the year’s worst reviews, a spanking almost as severe as that received by an earlier De Palma film, “Bonfire of the Vanities.” Friends told me of press screenings where viewers jeered the film, and after a first weekend of strong business, audiences for the film are growing sparse. The reviewers’ criticisms? The movie is slow, it’s unconvincing, it’s preposterous, it’s over-solemn. Rumor has it that De Palma was so humiliated by his notices that he canceled all his publicity dates after the reviews came out. “Mission to Mars,” the world seems to have concluded, just doesn’t work.

Beg to differ: it sure worked for me. I’d like to suggest that it might work for some other viewers too — at least if you don’t go to it expecting a big corporate space jam. Instead, it’s introverted and reflective, less a conventional clash-of-conflicting-desires drama than a mournful, sweet ballad on the themes of fate, adventure, and near misses. It’s narrative poetry in the guise of an outer-space adventure — not such a strange combination, if you think of something like “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

It has to be admitted that De Palma’s movies are a special case. He has never had much gift for conventional persuasiveness. The acting in his movies can look college-production awkward, and, although he has featured such actors as Robert De Niro and John Travolta early in their careers, he sometimes makes bumbling casting mistakes. (Here, Armin Muehler-Stahl is as heavy-spirited and hammy as ever.) De Palma has always struck me as a born avant-gardist, a Donald Barthelme or Godard type who has applied himself conscientiously to the making of conventional pop movies. Perhaps he appeals most to people for whom art is a game anyway, and who don’t need a lot of persuading in order to join in.

For those who do find his wavelength, “Mission to Mars” offers a jaunty and gallant Tim Robbins; Don Cheadle doing a good job of suggesting mental horsepower and technical expertise; and a real find in Connie Nielsen, a poised Swedish beauty who suggests Isabella Rossellini with a couple of advanced degrees. There are some beautifully done stretches where De Palma takes you inside the kinds of mental states you might experience during moments of panic, as well as unusual moments when you’re drawn into a character’s cerebrations. Gary Sinise, playing a hurtin’ astronaut who feels he has nothing to lose, may not be the ideal actor for this role — he’s gloomy where he needs to be warm — but he comes through at his best here. The movie also offers some silent-movie style visual poetry, corny, obvious images that are transcended by feeling and audacity.

It also offers genuine thought and reflection — and not the usual art-and-entertainment-world, gender/power/class/race crapola. De Palma is genuinely a science-idea-driven filmmaker. When I interviewed him some years ago, I found him guarded and perverse. Then I ventured the thought that I was convinced his thriller “The Fury” — like “Mission to Mars,” occasionally preposterous on the surface but brilliant underneath — was really all about cybernetics (a science that studies feedback and control, and that has been of intense interest to people in computers and neuroscience), and riffed on how the film’s themes, organization and staging suggested circuitry and feedback loops of both the electronic and organic type.

He brightened up and told me he’d written a thesis in college on cybernetics, and from then on the interview went swimmingly. (The Times the other day ran a story about some scientists who have proposed that a meteorite shower millions of years ago perhaps seeded the earth — an idea not far from one of the major ideas in the film.) “Mission to Mars” could be said to be about the human cost of our involvement in our ideas and adventures, and about how that cost makes us ask ourselves some of the big questions: Why, for instance, are we forever getting ourselves into these predicaments? And what are the sources of our drives?

Here are some tips about what to watch for in the film. Look for circles and spirals, the way circles are always morphing into spirals, and the ways De Palma associates these shapes with dance and rhythm: the pulsing double helixes, the twister that swallows the crew in the first act, the way blood and soda spiral around in weightlessness — images that made me, for one, gasp at their beauty. Even the film’s telescoping narrative suggests a spiral — it begins in great circling camera moves set to swirling Louisiana music, moves through several apparent protagonists, and ends with a blastoff through a column of luminous swirling debris.

Watch for the use of toys, models and rehearsals. An early emergency occurs when a micrometeorite breaks through a touch-screen the astronauts are using to prepare for dealing with emergencies. Suddenly they’re contending with an emergency they had no way of anticipating.

The film begins with a visual joke — a rocket blastoff that turns out to be a toy rocket. By the final blastoff, real lives are at stake. De Palma is talking about the way we seem to be moving from an industrial culture that demands certitude and explanation to an information culture, where everything is a matter of probability and we try to comprehend the world by making models of it. Kubrick, our only other truly intellectual feature-filmmaker, got the respect for his brains (even for “Eyes Wide Shut” !) that De Palma has never gotten — perhaps because the later Kubrick always maintained a magisterial, Euro-serious manner. De Palma is more American and boyish; he at least tries to deliver the pop goods.

You’ve never seen a movie where so much of it is upside down, circular, or rotating. De Palma swoops in, right through windows and other barriers, on his space-suited characters as they float about, or walk around in circles. He’s suggesting the fun and fact of weightlessness, of course, but also the giddiness of that domain we’re all getting to know called cyberspace, and perhaps the experience of thought itself. Watch also for the way the number three keeps recurring, and let yourself play with its resonances and suggestions: mother/father/child, the three acts of conventional drama, the three main parts of the human body, the three orders of classical architecture. The Christian Trinity, also: De Palma makes a point of always having someone say, when experiencing terror or surprise, “Jesus,” or “My God.”

There’s a real vision here — of life as a game that, whether we want it to or not, will always get serious on us; an almost Tantric vision of women (the circle) and men (the column) attaining occasional bliss (the spiral) together; of art and religion as the outs that our fate occasionally permits us. And it’s a vision of the place of ideas and belief in our lives. The film might be said to be a meditation on origins and destinies, couplehood and death, and the fate of pictorial storytelling in the age of the computer — motifs and themes that are braided through the film with a complexity that suggests two great late Chris Marker films, “Sans Soleil” and “The Last Bolshevik.”

Why did the press come down so heavily on “Mission to Mars”? On a surface level, the film certainly isn’t as convincing or dynamic as it perhaps ought to be. But there’s plenty of high-quality urgent realism to be had these days — “Law and Order,” for instance, is on TV nearly every night. Why insist on it from every work of dramatic entertainment? Some reviewers complained that when emergencies occurred, the astronauts remained too poker-faced. But many people enter a deliberate, calm state during emergencies. Do we really need the usual flashing red lights, and extras rushing about as though supplying background action for “E.R.”? The film is certainly unusual — internalized, yet played out as spectacle. But at least some reviewers are familiar with the likes of Tarkovsky’s legendary “Solaris,” the winner of no one’s awards for plausibility or peppy editing. And is the film’s much-ridiculed dialog really worse than the dialog in “2001” or “Aliens”? Really? The film was even mocked for its space creature — but she struck me as a witty fusion of the Roswell alien and a Cambodian Buddha, along with suggestions of E.T.; in a nice touch, her frog eyes echo Sinise’s.

Is it unfair of me to wonder aloud whether, at a time when ironic or edgy media gloating is the preferred tone, the film’s combination of intellectuality and emotional straightforwardness was hard for reviewers to process? But perhaps they really just didn’t enjoy the film. Too bad — there’s much there to love. Here’s my tip for those who know and respond to some of De Palma’s work: “Mission to Mars” is one of his tender, personal films, like “Blow Out” and “Casualties of War.” For those who have never tuned in to his movies, this isn’t the one that will win you over, though I don’t think even on a surface level it’s as bad as it’s been made out to be.

For everyone else: Why not try “Mission to Mars”? If you don’t mind forgiving some surface gaffes and letting the film’s deeper structures go to work on you, you might find yourself enjoying some unusual visions. Late in the film, Sinise is being prepared for a long journey. He steps into a lighted circle, is encased in a glass column (those circles! those columns!), and is submerged in a clear, roiling liquid. In a panic, he holds his breath until he can’t hold it anymore. The air finally bursts out of him — but then he finds he can get oxygen from the fluid. Is he a baby in a womb or a living exhibit? Is he dying or in ecstasy? In any case, this questing, melancholy searcher is finally going home. “Mission to Mars” is a nerd’s rhapsody.

©2000 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.