“Straw Dogs,” directed by Rod Lurie

By Ray Sawhill

I was a little wary about watching Rod Lurie’s remake of “Straw Dogs.” Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 thriller is a genuine landmark — one of the most notorious, controversial films in movie history, and for plenty of good reasons, most of them having to do with Peckinpah’s unique gifts, viewpoint and sensibility. (It was one of those hard-to-sort-your-feelings-out-about ’70s movies, like “A Clockwork Orange” and “Dirty Harry,” that really divided audiences and got people arguing. When’s the last time a new movie gave you a decent excuse for a substantial argument?) Lurie’s a talented director, but what could a remake of “Straw Dogs” possibly have to offer? It’s not as though the material or the plot were the major sources of the original film’s fascination. For better or worse, it’s “a Peckinpah film” before it’s anything else. Plus I had my usual anxieties about whether the remake might spoil my memories of the original.

But over the weekend curiosity finally got the better of me and I slipped the DVD in the player. Quick verdict: not bad at all. While it has nothing of the distressing and arousing qualities of the original, the new version functions pretty well as a thriller in its own right. That basic, minimal mousetrap of a plot turns out — to my surprise — to be just enough to sustain tension through 110 minutes, even with the locale moved from Peckinpah’s creepy-English-countryside to a small town in the American deep south. Lurie, his team and his cast all turn in a lot of professional, committed work, and it’s a pleasure that the film works consistently on a recognizably human scale. Plus, a big relief: The remake in no way disturbed my memories of the original. I watched the film very directly, with plenty of curiosity about where things would go and how they’d pan out.

What’s peculiar about the new movie — and what makes me want to say a bit more about it than just “Thumbs mostly up!” — is the impulse behind it. It turns out that Rod Lurie made the new film in order to refute the evo-bio / Robert Ardrey vision that Peckinpah expressed in the original. You can feel this impulse as you watch the new movie, and on the commentary track Lurie confirms it at some length. Lurie supplies a good commentary track generally. He’s open and smart, and he’s amusingly rueful and funny about knowing in advance how pissed-off many Peckinpah fans will inevitably be by his movie. (I’m a huge Peckinpah fan, but I’m not the purist that some of my friends are.) While suitably impressed by Peckinpah’s talent and style, Lurie is appalled by Peckinpah’s we’re-beasts-underneath-it-all vision — he can’t resist calling it “fascist.” He says that in taking on the job of the remake he wanted to make a more human and more balanced, even somewhat feminist “Straw Dogs.” And that is indeed the movie he has made.

Still: how bizarre! I can understand the impulse from a “I’m choosing deliberately not to compete with Peckinpah on his own terms” point of view, and — who knows? — maybe Lurie really is the decent, humane, centrist-liberal he sees himself as. And why shouldn’t he express his own personality? Even so, given the cut-throat nature of the material, it’s a somewhat weird choice. Would you choose to remake, say, “Birth of a Nation” — using the original plot of it — to convey the exact opposite of the argument that D.W. Griffith made?

But my job as a viewer is to grant the artist his / her premises and see how things play out. I enjoyed the movie in a very simple, direct way … but I confess that I also couldn’t resist letting my brain tumble into some film-buff intricacies. Let me share a few of them.

Lurie’s humanist p-o-v forces him to deliver some of the film’s biggest moments with completely different shadings than Peckinpah did. In one of them, the Amy character stands in a window with her top off so that some workmen outside can see her naked breasts. In the Peckinpah movie, Susan George’s Amy is feeling annoyed with her over-intellectual, wimpy husband, so we understand that she’s offering herself up to (and taunting) the men outdoors — she’s baring her breasts in a gesture of overheated, childish hawtness and self-assertion, basically. She’s giving herself a dirty ego-blast. In the new movie, Kate Bosworth’s breasts aren’t shown (though we know she’s topless), and she isn’t taunting the workers outside; no, what she’s doing by presenting herself naked in that window is expressing feistiness and defiance. “Fuck you, I’m my own person,” is what she’s saying.

At the climax of the plot’s second act comes another infamous scene. In this one, the Amy character is raped by some brutal local studs. In the original, Susan George’s Amy is ripe, bruised and spoiled — she has spent much of the movie asking to be roughed up, and now she’s getting what’s been coming to her, and then some. In the new film, Kate Bosworth’s Amy hasn’t been asking for any kind of disrespectful treatment, and she most certainly doesn’t melt midway through the rape. (She also has about zero body fat on her. She’s one tightly-wound girl.) I’m not alone in finding the rape in the Peckinpah to be one of movie history’s sexiest scenes; I’m pretty certain no one will be tempted to find the new movie’s rape scene even slightly arousing. This may well be a good thing, morally speaking. It makes for far less galvanizing viewing, though.

Still, these choices all play out surprisingly plausibly — they result in a milder movie, yes, but Lurie and Bosworth (and, in the rape scene, Alexander Skarsgard) find ways to put the scenes over in their own terms. As far as dramaturgy goes, though, his approach leaves Lurie with one huge question demanding explanation. It’s this: If the story isn’t about how we’re all basically primal beasts inside, then what’s the source of the story’s violence? The plot in the original exists in order to torment Dustin Hoffman’s brain-heavy David into connecting with his instincts and his inner masculine nature and finally taking violent action. Lurie doesn’t want to deliver, let alone, endorse that message. So what on earth can he come up with as kindling for the movie’s climactic mayhem?

His somewhat banal answer: “the American south.” The local boys who bring on the apocalypse aren’t menacing gargoyles inhabiting a heightened, scary, mythical landscape, as they are in the Peckinpah. Instead, they’re basically decent lads — they’re viewed with some sympathy — whose moral development, we’re given to understand, has been crippled by limited education, narrow horizons and unappealing opportunities. Lurie even redefines the meaning of “straw dogs.” In the original, we’re told that the term comes from Lao Tzu: it evokes violence, impersonality, cruelty — the immense, uncaring universe itself. Here, a character tells us that “straw dogs” is local slang for townies who stick around after they’re done with school, and who go to seed while living off their high school memories. In the original, the violence that finds release erupts from the heart of life in all of its unfathomable, brutal mystery. What drives the violence in the new movie is … well, basically, small-town high school football gone awry.

Even the contrast between David and Amy has been diminished. In the original, David is a professor and Amy is his petulant, easily-bored child-bride — a former student. He’s her senior and her intellectual superior, but she has the elemental power of sex on her side. The new version’s David isn’t an intellectual — he’s a bright guy, but a screenwriter, not an egghead — and the new Amy isn’t a brat simmering in her own erotic juices. Instead she’s an actress in charge of her life and career. David and Amy have even worked on the same TV show together. In the original, they clearly represent mind vs. body. Here, they’re not just mates, they’re colleagues and equals.

This approach may have the virtue of being ultra-reasonable but it does leave you asking a few inappropriate questions. Onesuch: Why the hell don’t these competent, mutually-respectful partners have the sense to beat it out of town when things there start to get unpleasant? And the climax probably won’t inspire anyone to roar with horrified approval. There’s plenty of well-staged action to enjoy, but when the new David picks up his weapons and gets down to the gruesome work of defending his home, he takes action not because he’s finally connecting with his own bestiality and manhood but because, well, even the most decent guy needs to stand up for his principles sometimes, y’know? What the new version’s Amy is experiencing during the mayhem seemed to me more than a little unclear. The high-powered nitro that fueled Peckinpah’s vision has nearly all been bled from the drama, in other words. Question du jour: Is there something about the good-liberal point of view that inevitably neuters drama?

Still, though I can’t imagine anyone making a case for the new version as a particularly memorable film — there’s nothing nightmarish, drunken, upsetting, insane or hypnotic about it — I found it reasonably gripping. It’s a well-made thriller, if a little bland, mild and worthy. But what’s wrong with professionalism done with some conviction? Let’s be grateful for good-enough.

Watching the new version did illuminate the original in one way for me: it got me reflecting that part of the voluptuous, unsettling power of the Peckinpah original comes from the fact that it’s really a horror movie in the guise of a thriller. At its heart it’s a monster movie … only in Peckinpah’s shrewd, demonic telling, the monster is something we all carry within ourselves.

©Ray Sawhill. First published on Uncouthreflections.com in 2013.

Neil Jordan

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By Ray Sawhill

Cerebral and visceral at the same time, the Irish writer and film director Neil Jordan’s movies suggest the work of a graduate seminarian who gorges on mystery stories and pop music. After making a mark in his 20s with his fiction — which so far includes “Night in Tunisia” (1976), “The Past” (1980), and “The Dream of a Beast” (1983) — Jordan turned to writing for television and then sent a film script to the director John Boorman.

He became a filmmaker in 1982, when Boorman persuaded Britain’s Channel Four to finance “Angel,” which was released in America (and is available on videocassette) as “Danny Boy.” A drama about a sax player in an Irish dance band who sets out to avenge the deaths of a friend and a deaf-mute girl, the film was pointedly apolitical, and it scandalized Ireland. Jordan made his next film in London. “The Company of Wolves” (1984) is a story-within-a-story, Chinese-box film that suggests a combination of the Brothers Grimm, Bettelheim, and Borges. It was a commercial success in England and a cult favorite in the States, and is remarkable for focusing sympathetically on the sexual dreams and fears of a pubescent girl. (The film’s co-screenwriter, Angela Carter, called it “a menstrual movie.”)

“Mona Lisa,” (1986), the film Jordan is most widely known for, is a lurid melodrama about a thug who falls in love with the call girl he’s assigned to chaperone. Witty and ingrown, but with a rampaging spirit, “Mona Lisa” may be the only successful example of a film many directors have tried to make — the film noir as conscious poetry — and it turned Bob Hoskins, for whom the lead role was designed, into a star.

Jordan moved into the world of big budgets and international casts with his next movie, “High Spirits” (1988), a farce about American tourists visiting an Irish castle, but the film was taken away from him by his producers during editing, and the mangled version bombed badly.

Jordan is thirty-nine years old. He grew up in Dublin, and between films returns to a home on the Dublin shore. I met him at a French restaurant in Manhattan; he was drowsy when he arrived, and contentedly unkempt in jeans and a T-shirt. He was in town to do some looping for his new movie, “We’re No Angels,” a variation on a 1954 film that starred Humphrey Bogart and Peter Ustinov (and which was itself based on a 1951 play by Albert Husson); Jordan made his version in Canada from a script by David Mamet, with Robert De Niro and Sean Penn in the leading roles. He’s a soft-spoken lunchtime companion, but there are hints of truculence and intensity in his dark eyes, and in the way he emphasizes his remarks with “Do you know what I mean?” and “Do you understand?”

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RAY SAWHILL: There’s a line in “Angel” where the hero asks the girl what Protestants know about sin and she answers something like “Nothing at all.” Are you a practicing Catholic?

NEIL JORDAN: No, not at all. I’m a bad Catholic.

RS: Aren’t most Catholics “bad Catholics”?

NJ: I’m a really bad Catholic. It’s not a subject that fascinates me, but it’s an issue that obsesses Ireland. The Irish Catholic church is a very mean an autocratic institution, far more repressive and puritanical than what you find anywhere else, I think. But it’s set in a peasant culture, so there’s a certain kind of irreverence and earthiness that’s part of people’s lives and which counteracts the church.

RS: I picture you as having been a serious student.

NJ: I was a very intellectual kid, a very big reader. My father taught at a teacher-training college and my mother was a painter. Her father was a painter. He was a professor of fine arts at the College of Art in Dublin. I was born in Sligo on the west coast, but we moved to the city. It was a middle-class upbringing and quite a literate one. I went to college and studied Plato and Aristotle with great relish, although the only languages apart from English that I have any acquaintance with are GAelic and Latin.

RS: Was there any American-style popular culture around when you were growing up?

NJ: I was fascinated by music and movies. There was no television — most families couldn’t afford TV. I used to be allowed to go once every two weeks to the cinema. There was an assumption on the part of Irish society in general that cosmopolitan influences were tainted with some kind of evil — a little like Iran at the moment. The devil spoke through Carole Lombard and Buddy Holly.

RS: Did that make it more enticing?

NJ: Totally, yeah. My father was a very intellectual man. I argued with him a lot when I was a kid — ferocious stand-up fights all the time. Religion, politics, sex. He was very enlightened and kind. But he came from a small-town background. And the great problems in rural Ireland are alcoholism and madness, which go hand in hand. There were strains of that in probably everybody’s family. Coming from a small farm, he had had to educate himself, teach himself to read, go to university. He was somebody who created a different life for himself. And to do that, I suppose, one has to teach oneself a certain rigidity. So I used to fight against that a lot.

RS: Were you an only child?

NJ: No, there were five of us. I’m the second-oldest. My mother wanted all her kids to paint. I used to paint a lot when I was a kid. Then around the age of twelve I just stopped, and now I can’t draw a line. Well, I can draw doodles and cartoons, but both of my sisters are professional painters in Dublin — whatever small art market is there. There’s really no tradition of visual arts in Ireland because there is never any money to support it. It’s ass simple as that. There’s no architecture of any significance, except by the Anglo-Irish; the native Irish never had a chance to build anything. The mode of expression that costs nothing is literature, storytelling.

I started writing when I was about fourteen. Stories, poetry, plays. Approximations of the people I was reading at the time — Graham Greene, Dostoyevski, Yeats, Joyce. One has an urge to write at certain times. It doesn’t matter what you write about so long as you write. I went to university specifically to do that. I studied literature and history. I worked in an ensemble theater in Dublin — a group of writers, directors, actors. When I got my degree I began to try to live off that.

RS: What were the plays you wrote like?

NJ: They were performed, never published. I was mainly the writer in the group. I love writing for actors. Jim Sheridan, who’s just made a film called “My Left Foot” — it’s wonderful, and Daniel Day-Lewis is wonderful in it — was a part of the group. He’s a wonderful theater director, one of the best directors of actors I’ve ever come across. He and myself and a group of Irish actors and one or two other Irish writers were part of this same fringe theater group in Dublin. We used to write plays about social issues that affected people in Dublin at the time. We used to write children’s plays, street theater, musicals.

RS: Did you manage to make a living off it?

NJ: I never made a living off of anything, really. Which is why at one stage I turned to playing music. I was in my early twenties, married, with one child, living in Dublin, unemployed. Writing fiction, writing for the theater, absolutely broke. They needed a guitarist in this band, and I thought, Rock ‘n’ roll musicians make some money. So I said O.K. I just did it for money. But it was from that experience that my first movie [“Angel”] came.

We were traveling around Ireland, playing in large dance halls. There were groups called show bands, playing an amalgam of country and rock music. But for some reason they had brass sections. They came from a combination of these old swing bands that were knocked out by Bill Haley — they were still trying to make a living. It was a strange compromise between rock ‘n’ roll and what you would think of as a dance band of the ’40s.

In the north there was fighting going on; in the south there was not.The only people who were immune were the musicians. They would travel freely. So we’d travel to Belfast and Derry, driving back at three or four at night, which can be very frightening if you’re driving through areas where there’s been trouble.

RS: Did you have any frightening encounters?

NJ: Only when I did the movie. I got a lot of threats. I had to move out of my house. The movie is based on an incident involving a group called the Miami Show Band. One night they were traveling back from the north of Ireland, and they were stopped by me dressed as soldiers, taken out, and machine-gunned. It was a sectarian killing.

RS: What happened when you made the movie?

NJ: I began to get a few people visiting my house at night.

RS: Throwing rocks against your windows?

NJ: No, no. One night two guys walked into the house, into my child’s bedroom, looked around, and walked out again. It was a demonstration that “We know what you’re up to.”

RS: You must have wondered whether the film was worth doing.

NJ: Well, I was in the middle of it by then. And things like that happen all the time in Ireland, but rarely do they lead to anything serious. I rang up the Special Branch, the group of people who are meant to look after us. Years later, I crashed my car one night, and for some reason no police came to the scene. Eventually, after an hour or two — there were traffic jams everywhere — they came. I asked my lawyer, “Why on earth did it take them so long to come?” He said it was because the guys who came first were actually Special Branch and didn’t want to interfere. I wonder whether they were just keeping in touch, just following along.

RS: How old were you when you wrote your first book?

NJ: Twenty-four. I was unemployed. I was with the theater group. I was living in not a bad house, really. In Dublin you can always get by. But I was collecting the dole. I published stories, and I felt very proud and lucky and very surprised that what I’d written was well-received. The first book I wrote won the Guardian fiction prize. I became quite a literary young lion.

I come from a very literary culture. My friends were writers like Brian Friel and Seamus Heaney. They’re people that want the flame to be carried forward, the tradition to be carried on. So when I began to make films, among the literary community in Ireland it was considered a horrendous thing to do, an utter betrayal of one’s calling and one’s destiny — that sort of stuff. It was if Maria Ewing had begun to sing with Boy George. Film is not part of the culture.

RS: Your fiction is quite literary. Yet in your movies, in a popular art form —

NJ: Well, that’s the reason I moved into movies. I see movies as a great escape from the awful burdens of literature. If you ever try to sit down and write a novel, you’re at the typewriter for two years. You can go nuts.

RS: When you turned from your typewriter and your blank sheets of paper to writing for movies and television, what was it like?

NJ: Well, first of all, everything has been a release from sitting alone writing. (Laughs) Except marriage — that was not a release. Basically everything that I’ve done in a more public milieu has been to get myself away from writing fiction — an alternative and an escape from it. It just happens that movies have been the most engrossing and the most fulfilling. Even when I played music, it was just so wonderful to be among a mass of people.

RS: But when you wrote for TV you were unhappy with what was done with what you wrote.

NJ: Just like most writers, yeah. Then I sent John Boorman a script about two young Irish gypsy kids —

RS: There are gypsies in Ireland?

NJ: Yeah, they’re called tinkers. The kids in the film get involved in an arranged marriage and in smuggling. It was a bit like “They Live By Night,” that Nicholas Ray movie about two sweet young kids who meet in this horrible world. John liked it a lot, and he got in touch with me and asked me to write another script with him — “Broken Dreams,” which has never been made. It was a futuristic script — a delightful, wonderful story about the end of the world. It was from a French novel set in the west of Ireland about a group of magicians, by the guy who wrote “Diva” — Daniel Odier. And the ultimatee trick was to make things actually vanish. They couldn’t bring them back. It was kind of a crazed premise. John has wanted to do it for a long, long time. It’s i that midrange between being too expensive to be quirky and too quirky to be cheap. We sat for three months in a room and wrote it, and he went off to try to get it financed and couldn’t. Then he made “Excalibur,” and he asked me to do some work on the last draft of that script.

RS: You were on the set of “Excalibur,” making a documentary.

NJ: Yeah, it’s been shown on television. I was credited as “consultant.” John asked me to be around during the shooting. I said, “O.K., but I’ll have nothing to do — I’ll feel awkward. So why don’t you let me make a documentary about you making the film? And if you want to swap ideas and talk, I’ll at least have a function; I won’t be like an idiot, getting in the way.” Basically we talked about the scenes, what’s happening here, what’s happening there.

RS: I picture the two of you sitting around talking about Freud and Jung, fairy tales and dreams.

NJ: (Laughs) That might be a bit idealistic. But John allowed me to see that films could be accessible to personal vision.

RS: You seem to share some ideas about dreams and myths.

NJ: Oh, yeah. Since I was about fifteen I’ve been obsessed with all that — with the idea of nonrationality. I’m very impatient with explanations of human behavior that begin and end with the rational. And the kinds of stories I love are ones where rational human beings are confronted with things they can’t explain.

RS: Ireland seems to have no film tradition.

NJ: None whatsoever. But for me filmmaking was a wonderful release. Because in Ireland, everything has been written about to a large extent. Particularly after Joyce. I lived in the city he’d written about. Some of the greatest literature of the twentieth century took place in this city I grew up in. It’s impossible not to feel swamped by that. You grow up in this culture, this landscape, in which every little detail has been written about. Every little brick, every corner, every place you go has a literary association, be it through Joyce or Patrick Kavanagh or Flann O’Brien or whomever. One’s palate becomes sort of jaded. One’s imagination becomes paralyzed.

RS: How was “Angel” received in Ireland?

NJ: Oh, I was thrown out of the country. Literally. It caused such outrage — it offended every possible segment. It offended extreme nationalists in the south, who thought I hadn’t taken a political stance. It offended loyalists. It particularly offended members of the film community of Ireland, because I was a novelist and I’d made a movie myself. It offended literary people. The only people it didn’t offend were in Anderson’s Town, in the ghettos of Belfast; they rather liked it. (Laughs)

RS: Were you conscious of becoming part of an explosion of British filmmaking?

NJ: I was very conscious of being in an environment that allowed people like myself to make films. I was aware of Channel Four — they did “Angel.” Without them I would never have directed a film. I was aware of an environment that was hungry for filmmaking. As a cultural capital ten years before, London had the greatest theater in the world. For some reason that changed, and for a certain period it was directed toward the cinema. Peter Greenaway was making films, and Stephen Frears …

RS: Are the British directors who came from TV commercials, like Ridley Scott and Tony Scott and Adrian Lyne, part of this bunch?

NJ: I think the great filmmaker in Britain whom everybody has ignored is Ken Loach. He can’t make a movie anymore. When he made “Kes” and his other movies, he didn’t just throw a great wash of gray paint over your entire being; he managed to photograph real people in all their dimensions. But Ridley and Tony Scott and Adrian Lyne make Hollywood studio pictures without any questions. They make them on Hollywood’s own terms. Whereas Stephen Frears and David Leland and myself and others would make American films, but we’d probably make them with some questions.

The only other director I’ve met at all regularly is Stephen Frears. He’s the only one I’ve talked to more than a few times, except for David Leland, who wrote with me on “Mona Lisa.” British society for some reason is not terribly communicative. England is a rather constricted place. It can drive you crazy as an Irish person. What you have to realize about the British is that they’re not very happy with themselves and never have been. They have no way, even in their socially conscious films, to find redemptive images. Because there’s something in the British psyche that doesn’t actually like life. A movie like “Do the Right Thing” in many ways takes a social perspective similar to that of the British movies that were made in the past eight years. But none of them would be able to carry the political and social intent with the same amount of liveliness, of fun.

RS: You married very young.

NJ: Yeah, and had two kids. In the Irish way. I was about twenty-one when we had the first one. With “Company of Wolves” I wanted to make something that would illuminate what my daughters were going into. In my fiction I’ve always liked to write from inside women’s parts, for some reason. You have to imagine yourself into an experience that’s totally the opposite of your own. There’s great freedom in that, a strange release. Angela Carter’s story was the basis for the film, but I wanted to create the visual approximation of a girl’s mind at that age — with the narrative confusion and the association from one image to another. Which is why the film probably has a confused structure. Or, not confused, but not quite circular. There’s a film I saw a long time ago called “The Saragossa Manuscript,” a wonderful movie, made by a Polish director. It was one of Luis Bunuel’s favorite films. That film does have that circularity. There’s an authorial organization to the entire thing. I resisted doing that in this case; I wanted some aspect of the accidental.

RS: “The Company of Wolves” is so strange because it’s a very thought-out film that addresses the unconscious.

NJ: It’s a cheeky film. It was after Spielberg had come out with his films, and “Star Wars” had been released, and Ridley Scott was working in London. I was working with these guys who had worked on all these big movies. So Anton Furst and the cinematographer and I were making a film that belonged to the realm of these large special-effects movies, but with bits of twine, and dolls, and twelve trees that we had to shift around the studio to give the impression of a forest. That’s all we could afford to build.

RS: How did you daughters react to “Company of Wolves”?

NJ: They love it. Kids love that movie, particularly young girls. My youngest daughter is nine, and she holds screenings of it.

RS: Which of your films is your daughters’ favorite?

NJ: Oh, the worst of the bunch, I suppose. The one I made last — “High Spirits.”

RS: Do you see the girls a lot?

NJ: I do. If I’m doing postproduction on a film, the only way I can see them is to bring them into the theater: “What do you think of this, kids?” “Do you like that?”

RS: Your films have a familiarity with going backstage.

NJ: Oh, I love that world, don’t you? I think some of the best films are about people who have to perform: “Sawdust and Tinsel” and “The Magic Flute.” I love “La Strada.” I want to do a film in Ireland that’s about backstage performance. The thing I’d love most to make would be a backstage musical set in outer space.

RS: Are you putting me on? Your eyes are twinkling.

NJ: No, I’m serious. It’s an interesting problem, how one would make a musical that would still have some kind of resonance today. I wrote a story a long time ago for my daughter which was about hoofers in space who traveled around entertaining troops in these intergalactic wars. It was basically a backstage musical that went from asteroid to asteroid. But now I want to do a film in Ireland that’s a simple little film about a musician — about a marriage that went wrong. I’m just writing it. The woman had a child and left before the child was even one, left it to be brought up by its father. She comes back and the son doesn’t know that she’s his mother. It’s set in a theater in Dublin. It would be a very simple film with three or four actors — a bit of an antidote the big film I’ve just made.

RS: There’s something of a backstage musical in all your films.

NJ: Especially “Angel.” You know the way when you begin to make a film with someone for the first time you show each other films? Chris Menges, the cinematographer, would show me a lot of realist movies and I would show him musicals. I wanted a tension between both things.

RS: It’s very sophisticated for a first film.

NJ: Not in terms of the narrative. What I had to learn was narrative, which was an odd thing for a writer. The visual aspect, the composition, came easier to me. I had written the script with the images in mind: the girl by the tree, the guy in the pink suit on the beach.

RS: Where are you based now?

NJ: I’ve been in Canada for nine months shooting “We’re No Angels.” It’s very pretty up there — too pretty in many ways. What happens in Vancouver is that when the sun comes out it’s too healthy. There’s no diffusion in the sky. You get this horrible blue. It’s very beautiful, but photographically it’s ugly. So we kept waiting for clouds, and sometimes the clouds wouldn’t come.

But I live in Dublin — I go away to work and come back to Dublin. It’s a nice early-Victorian house in Bray, a seaside town. The weaves actually hit my third-story window. I get flooded every now and then. Have you read “Portrait of the Artist”? You know the Christmas-dinner scene, where Dante talks about Parnell? That took place in the house next door. That family lived there. Most of my life is spent alone. I have a girlfriend, Beverly D’Angelo, who was in “High Spirits.” I’d say she’s my fiancee. When I’m in Dublin, she comes to Dublin; when she’s in L.A., I go to L.A.

RS: Did you have a good time working together on “High Spirits”?

NJ: We had a very good time. She’s very fiery. But it’s such a noisy film as it exists now. I was on a plane with Beverly, and it was on, and I thought, Oh God, this is the noisiest film ever made. It’s terrible to see a movie you’ve made that you’re not that happy with. It makes you not want to make films again.

RS: When I saw “High Spirits,” I thought, Gee, Neil Jordan seems to want to do something delicate, and the producers seem to want “National Lampoon.”

NJ: That’s a fair impression. The entire thing was a bit of a mess. “High Spirits” was meant to be a coherent farce, not an incoherent farce. I pictured it as a farce — like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — that concluded in an erotic series of encounters. Where on one night everyone goes through an experience that changes them radically. The experience is the falling in love with ghosts. I wanted to set up this complicated series of characters and throw all these balls up in the air, and the question was: How are you going to resolve it all? And then I would resolve it through a series of deaths and rebirths. It’s a classic form. Every films I’ve ever done, I write out a two-page description of it first. The shape of it is there. I wanted to do “High Spirits” quite simply. I knew I needed American actors and all that. For whatever reasons — probably because it needed quite an expensive budget — I involved myself with American producers.

What happens with independent productions, even ones with big budgets like mine, is very simple, really: You bring a script to a bunch of people, and they say, “O.K., we an get yo the money for this, but we will need a star name.” They go to a festival or market like Cannes, and they sell it to different territories. Bit by bit you find yourself backed into a corner — first of all with regard to the casting, maybe later on with regard to the script. That’s the kind of thing that happened to me on this film. To get the resources to make it on the scale I needed to make it on, and to deliver the effects and build the set, I had to get into that world. That was my very first time.

RS: Wasn’t “Company of Wolves” an expensive film?

NJ: Inexpensive. It cost about $3 million. “High Spirits” cost $17 million. I wrote the script; I got my designer, Anton Furst — the guy who designed “Batman” and “Company of Wolves” — and all his crew working on the sets while I was still negotiating with the producers. All the guys I work with were desperate to make this film because so few films were being made in Britain at the time. So to keep the project alive I began to back myself into a corner, thinking I could solve all these problems during the shooting. Most of which I actually did. But then we had a lot of arguments over the cut at the end. Bit by bit I lost control.

RS: Which are the arguments you lost?

NJ: The argument about the structure of the entire piece. The structure of the film was about the castle itself — the hotel — and the inhabitants of that hotel, with the American characters being visitors, flitting around the main story. And all the Irish actors — their parts were decimated.

As I shot it, the tale of all these shouting and screaming Americans was auxiliary. The entire balance of the film was upset. In the end it seemed like a stupid story and structure for a film. The only thing I like is that there is a beauty in the visual organization of the piece.

It was heartbreaking. It almost killed me. I’d not done anything before that I’d not finished. With this, I filmed everything I wanted, but what was released was unfinished.

It makes me very violent, I must say. It makes me very angry, very vindictive. I would gladly have done serious damage to people’s joints.

In the end, either you have power or you’re working with people who have enough moral integrity or intelligence to share your vision. I was working with idiots — I don’t mean the actors; the actors gave everything.

Making films is a very tiring thing to do. There have been moments when I’ve just wanted to resign from them. It’s too much trouble. It’s not that too much responsibility is placed on the director. In an odd way, it’s not enough. If as a director you were responsible from beginning to end for every decision, you wouldn’t have these endless discussions and meetings, so you could actually do it rather quickly. But as it is, you’re responsible yet you’re answerable. And that takes a tremendous amount of time. It can be very exhausting. All the decisions I make are out of my instincts. I can’t do it otherwise. But sometimes you have argue, and sometimes you have to be diplomatic and kind of sly. You have to do things and not reveal why you’re doing them at the time.

RS: Can you give me an example?

NJ: If you’re told by a producer that this set can stay up for only a week and you know you need it for two weeks, you say, O.K., we leave it up for a week. You’ve already argued about it for two weeks anyway. And when you come to shoot it you deliberately leave the major scene till Friday, and you won’t get it finished on Friday, so it has to stay up on Monday for the next week.

RS: Does this come easily to you?

NJ: Well, it’s stuff one learns very quickly when one’s back is against the wall. It’s stuff like that that’s very tiring. But the truth is, there’s nothing more pleasurable than making films. you’re dealing with color, you’re dealing with light, you’re dealing with actors, you’re photographing things that move through time. It’s a wonderful medium. And you’re not doing something that’s a potpourri of these various arts; you’re making something that’s quite different. It’s a pleasure that’s difficult to relinquish.

RS: Did your theater work teach you how to talk to actors?

NJ: Well, up until this most recent film everything I did was from my own script. So I was in the happy position of being able to rewrite the dialogue very rapidly, or to restructure the scene if something wonderful happened when we were shooting. And as I cast a the film I could change the parts. I would rewrite to get their personalities into the script. I used to try to get the actors to reinvent the whole story themselves as they doing the film.

RS: What was it like working with American actors?

NJ: American actors seem to want to invent their parts themselves. I find them fascinating. They work with much more commitment to the actual idea than British actors do. To a certain extent, British actors are slumming when they’re in movies, except for the good ones, like Hoskins and Caine — people who are no so much of the theater.

RS: Caine can be an astounding actor, like in “Educating Rita.”

NJ: Or “Hannah and Her Sisters.”

RS: But sometimes he just seems to be checking in at a cocktail party. You got such a malevolent performance from him in “Mona Lisa.” I wouldn’t have thought of Michael Caine if I were looking for malevolence.

NJ: A lot of the stuff he did in England when he was younger was straight out of his background — South London working-class boy who wants to make good by whatever means possible.I just tried to tap into that aspect of him. he loved it. It’s interesting — he will take the easiest of possible options for the first take. If he’s allowed, he’ll come in and do it and go home. But the more you probe and demand, the more excited Michael gets. And the happier he gets, really.

RS: Do you rehearse with the actors?

NJ: Except with Bobby [De Niro] and Sean [Penn] — we rehearsed for a day — I’ve never rehearsed with the actors. I’ve had discussions; I don’t find it productive. He walks in the door, he looks around, the bar explodes. What can you rehearse about that? I would like to work out the characters sometimes in more detail.

RS: If you could wave a magic wand and change the way films are made, what would you change?

NJ: First of all, I would ask that they be budgeted correctly. In other words, when the script is passed and accepted, and they want the script to have certain elements, they should put enough money into the film to realize the script correctly and coherently. This very rarely happens. Usually they want everything in it, the big bits and the small bits, but they limit you: you’ve only so much time and money, you can have only two hundred extras here or twenty cars there.

And I would also ask for a certain period to reshoot stuff. It’s the only medium in the world where you never get a second chance. In practice people do it all the time, because things go wrong, but they don’t budget for it. So it causes a lot of argument and friction.

RS: What’s the David Mamet script for “We’re No Angels” like?

NJ: Over the years I’d been sent many scripts, and I’d always turned them down. But if I’d ever written my ideal script, this would have been it. It was extraordinary. Amazing. This is David’s most sentimental, sweetest script to date. It has two guys escaping from prison who are not-quite-made-it crooks, innocents, who are mistaken for priests. There’s a prostitute with a heart of gold who goes through a religious conversion. I think it’s his best script. I did the film because the script is so good.

RS: De Niro and Penn are said to be very demanding actors.

NJ: They’re quite demanding, but quite wonderful. It was a new encounter for me, because I had never been confronted with as many questions. Their demands on the specific reality of the parts they played were painstaking. It was very good for me, because it forced me to ask a lot of questions. I have never been concerned with the realistic nature of performances. I never thought about it really, probably because I’d written the parts. On the other films, it was more like: This script will never be made if I don’t make it. It was different here. I was a director for the first time. It’s a very interesting thing to be a director.

David’s script was spare, and my entire attack on the movie was to make it lush and large and circuslike and emotional. The script is an anti-religious parable about redemption. Which was wonderful, because what people hope for from religion — which it never gives them — is the whole center of the characters. Sean makes a wonderful speech which expresses the whole thing – why people want to believe and why the systems that are meant to give them belief never match them. But if they do want to believe, what’s wrong with that?

RS: When Cathy Tyson shoots Michael Caine in “Mona Lisa,” you —

NJ: I gave her a kind of saintly aspect, yeah. One longs for the serenity of that world. In the new movie I have a deaf-and-dumb kid. If you’re talking about wounded innocents … The images that move me most are redemptive ones. My sense of that probably comes out of Italian paintings. My mother used to surround me with them as a kid. There’s a wonderful painting by Velazquez in the National Gallery in London which is called “The Immaculate Conception.” Mary is sitting on a globe among the planets with a halo of stars around her head. And she has a little bruised and wounded face, like a kid about fifteen who you’d want to have sex with. I’m sure Velazquez did. Have a look at it and you’ll see the same face you see in “Angel,” the little girl before the tree. I tend to look at pictures like that to find images that will resonate and some starting point for a visual structure.

RS: Was Penn awed by working with De Niro? What kind of rapport did they have?

NJ: Everyone was slightly awed by working with De Niro, because he’s such a complete actor. He has done less bad work than anybody else I can think of. I’m sure that to actors in general he is quite an awesome figure. As to whether Sean was awed by Bobby, I don’t think so. Or maybe he was privately, but maybe he was saved by the part. They both involved themselves very deeply in their parts, and they played two opposite kinds of people: one innocent and full of wonder, the other fast-talking and tough. Bob was the fast-talking guy and Sean the innocent.

RS: I understand that De Niro is not the most verbal of people.

NJ: No but one of the most intelligent he is. It’s kind of an instinctive intelligence one is working with. I hate it when people can articulate things too clearly, because then it’s said and there’s no other way of saying it.

RS: Yet you are very articulate.

NJ: But I don’t articulate when I’m working. I almost deliberately try not to. Because if you can describe it, there’s no point in doing it. Really!

They’re both very demanding actors, but the demands they make are very productive ones. Because of the level of reality both guys bring to their performances, it’s best to surround them with reality. If they’re reacting to something, it’s far better to have the thing they’re reacting to there behind the camera rather than just to imagine it. There’s a level of falsity that doesn’t exist in that style of acting, which I had not come across before.

RS: Bob Hoskins seems to be that kind of actor too.

NJ: He is, yeah. I think acting in a film has a lot to do with the realism the medium demands. But I love when it can go into levels of mime, burlesque, melodrama. I found Hoskins was that kind of guy. He could become a song-and-dance man in a minute. And he could awaken in himself these huge, almost Dickensian kinds of emotions – a think which you don’t specifically connect with movies. The great thing about working with him was that I had anticipated somebody who would be terrifying about the interior logic of his part, but he wasn’t that way at all. He was able to take imaginative leaps and make quite an irrational journey through it.

RS: How much of a student of movies and thrillers have you been?

NJ: When I was a kid, I was not allowed to go to the cinema all that often. I remember wanting to see “The Battle of the Sexes,” which I thought was a war movie. My parents wouldn’t let me, and they would never tell me why When I saw “La Strada” the first time, that’s when I was taken over by film; that’s when I lost faith in the written word. I saw it when I was about eighteen. Then I saw Kurosawa movies and Bunuel films … Something about the idea of photography knocked me dead. The idea of photographing Giulietta Massina playing the trumpet, the idea of that both belonging to stories and actually happening, began to make me think, Why write a fiction that says, “He woke up and he remembered the sweet taste of her perfume” or something? Why write something as false as that when something like photography exists?

In many ways, all the fiction I wrote was refusing to be a novel. I could never describe a character’s inner life. I could only describe the physical realities of their fictional existence. I could never allow myself to take that liberty. I despised it. I regarded the novel as defunct, basically. I used to read too much Robbe-Grillet. That was it, really. I could not describe anything other than what could be seen or smelled or heard.

RS: Do you still hang out with your old theater friends?

NJ: I do. But Dublin’s a very small city. It’s an ideal place to return to. It’s not too good a place to live all the time.

RS: How do you find time for your literary writing?

NJ: I don’t. I’m meant to deliver a novel by Christmas. I’m trying to start it at the moment. I’m trying to find a way of writing again. I think the solution is to be more vulgar than I have been in the past, to actually begin to talk about the characters’ inner lives — to allow myself to make those statements. I was too strict with myself before.

RS: Do you have hobbies?

NJ: I ski. I go skiing with my kids, to Switzerland. I took it up because Christmas in Ireland is quite a horrendous time. Everyone drinks so much that you’re literally wrecked afterward, or at least I am, because I like to drink. So I said, All right, I’ll take my kids away to Switzerland. And they enjoyed it.

I rarely stay at home. I go out all the time. I go around the pubs — that’s what I like to do with my time. But I hang out with my kids. I spend as much of my spare time with them as I can.

I am the only gainfully employed person that I know where I come from. So I have to look out for a lot of people. It’s a very embarrassing position to be in. People want to borrow money off me, but once they do they hate me, because they can’t pay it back.

RS: How do you handle that?

NJ: I give them the money. I say, Here, don’t borrow it, take it.

RS: What do you read? What music do you listen to?

NJ: I mainly listen to classical music. When I was younger I used to listen to everything before 1500 and everything after 1890. I’ve never really gone through Mozart, so for the moment I’m trying to listen to as much of Mozart as I can. I reading a biography of Shaw — a bit dull. Have you read his plays? You can read them, but they’re hard to watch. I’m reading a volume of art criticism by John Ashbery. I’m a fan of his poetry — I’m intrigued; I want to find out where the meaning is. But I basically like movies. I go all the time, especially when I’m making a film. It relaxes me and makes me think of things. On a Saturday, I used to go see five movies if I was shooting a film. Recently I saw “The Abyss.” I saw “Casualties of War,” which is beautifully made and definitely a film of stature, but I don’t know if I enjoyed it.

RS: What do movies represent for you?

NJ: I connect movies with sex and isolation. I connect them with forbidden things — rich, strange things that don’t happen in real life. I mean sex, sexually charged images. I don’t mean dirty, nasty, prurient things. I mean a level of eroticism and sensuality. I connect it with intoxication, with what storytelling should be. When I was a kid, it was something that aroused emotions that were far, far bigger than the things one was surrounded by.

RS: There are a lot of indications of the irrational and the spiritual in your films.

NJ: It comes out of my background. The Irish psyche is impatient with reality. There’s a great quotation: “It refuses to subject itself to the tyranny of fact.” It’s true. it’s much happier with lies than it is with truth. It’s much happier with inventions than it is with reality. It’s actually much happier with failure than with material success. There’s a feeling that too much concentration on the mundane matters of business and everyday life stifles your … I guess your ability to have fun is what it comes to. (Laughs)

©1989 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Interview magazine.

Electronic Film Editing

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A Final Cut Pro editing screen

The New Jump Cut

By David Ansen and Ray Sawhill

In the past four years a quiet revolution has occurred in the world of Hollywood filmmaking: the advent of digital editing on computers. Not since the Moviola arrived, in the mid-1920s, has a machine so radically transformed the way movies are assembled –for both good and ill — or broadened the definition of film editing itself. And it has altered, in ways both painful and salutary, the lives of the men and women who make movies.

The revolution has come swiftly. In 1992 editor Rob Kobrin cut an entire feature, the thriller “Needful Things,” on an Avid computer. It was only one of four films edited that year on digital systems. Today roughly 80 percent of Hollywood movies are edited on either Avid or its rival system, Lightworks. “I think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread,” says Kobrin, 40, a self-appointed cheerleader for a technology that not everyone has welcomed. “If computer editing is hell, then I’m Satan,” he boasts.

Traditional film editing was always a funky, hands-on proposition: reeling and unreeling spools of film, cutting and gluing pieces of celluloid together, working amid a sea of film that sometimes got trampled underfoot. All that has changed, and the advantages are obvious. In the weightless world of digital information, 150 miles of film can be stored on hard drives, and an editor with the press of a key or the click of a mouse can instantly access any visual or audio moment in the film. Infinite variations of a scene can be stored and called up for review and comparison. Want to create a dissolve, a fade, a wipe? Instead of shipping the film out to an optical shop, and waiting days for it to come back, an editor can create these transitions instantly on his computer, and just as easily lay in a temporary music score, a bomb explosion, a title.

In this brave new world the line between editing and special effects has blurred, the jobs of editing film and sound have started to merge, and it’s sometimes hard to know where editing begins and cinematography and production design leave off. In the current family movie “Alaska,” editor Kobrin, working with director Fraser Heston, literally moved mountains. The town the characters lived in was on the Canadian coast, but the mountains on view in the background were shot in Valdez, Alaska, and electronically laid into the image. “Traditionally the art of film editing was the juxtaposition of frames,” Kobrin explains. “I’m now editing within the frame.” A crowd of a hundred extras can be multiplied into a horde of thousands. You could say that in the digital universe all live-action films have the potential to become animation.

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Moviolas went into general use in the 1920s

In the first 100 years of moviemaking, the editing room was a noisy, collaborative workplace where an assistant would sit beside the editor and get a hands-on demonstration of the art. Now, when you walk into the old house in Greenwich, Conn., where Ron Howard is putting together his big fall thriller, “Ransom,” there’s a ghostly quiet. All you hear is the voices coming from the computer screens — where Mel Gibson, as an airline magnate, learns his son has been kidnapped — and the clicking of the keyboard. Howard is working with the two editors who won Oscars for “Apollo 13,” Mike Hill and Dan Hanley, but this is the director’s first venture onto digital. Each editor works in a separate room; the assistants are in the basement, where they convert the film to video, digitize it and painstakingly catalog the footage. “I find it thrilling,” says Howard. “You don’t have to tear the movie completely down and put it back together. It’s everything I ever hoped editing could be.”

But not everyone is rejoicing. For most editors the blade of revolution has a double edge. As Walter Murch, the legendary sound editor of “Apocalypse Now,” puts it, “If God wants to punish you, he gives you what you want.” Almost unanimously, editors rave about their new machines — and complain that the quality of their lives, and of the work, has gone to hell. It’s the much touted speed of these new machines that has led to problems. The studios, naturally, want a bottom-line return for the hundreds of thousands they’ve spent on their digital systems. Since time is huge money in Hollywood, executives figure that the time spent in post-production can now be cut in half. “Editors are terribly upset about what’s going on,” says Thelma Schoonmaker, who cuts Martin Scorsese’s films. “Computers do save time to an extent, but not as much as producers thought.”

To make the opening dates determined by the marketing departments, teams of editors frequently come in to “gang bang” a movie. “The vision goes,” explains editor Tom Roll (“Heat”). “Editors have different styles, so the movie becomes a hodgepodge.” Richard Marks, who edited “Assassins” last year in a rushed seven weeks, says, “It’s insane. It’s the thinking process that makes the movie, not the speed at which you use the tools.”

“The digital revolution is digging a big hole for all of us,” moans editor Carol Littleton (“The Big Chill”). “You do the impossible and that becomes the norm. You can’t explore anything.” Another reason the process isn’t that much quicker is that action directors, emboldened by the limitless options of their Avids and Lightworks, are shooting much more film — instead of boiling 800,000 feet down to a 12,000-foot movie, the editors might have to contend with a million feet of film. “We always worked terrible hours, and it’s worse now,” says Schoonmaker. “Everyone’s personal life and health is suffering. Everyone has to calm down and use the technology for the greatness of it and not get hysterical.”

It isn’t just the workers who are getting hysterical — so are the films. Several people cite the hyperactive “The Rock” — cut by four editors on five Avids — as an example of the new emphasis on kinetic impact over coherence. But is the technology driving the style, or is the style a response to an audience conditioned to a faster pace?

Roll and his colleagues warn that the facility of the new tools can seduce filmmakers into cutting too much, and too quickly. A new generation of directors, schooled in MTV esthetics, is so used to editing on a computer screen that they can misjudge the impact of their images when they’re amplified on a huge screen. Michael Bay, “The Rock’s” 32-year-old director, realized, when he finally saw a car chase projected on film, that he’d cut it too fast for the eye to absorb. He had to “de-cut.” The next generation may magnify this dilemma. “The real problem is with very young directors who have never edited on film,” says Warner Bros. head of post-production Marc Solomon. “They don’t want to look at film dailies, they’re happy to look at videotapes, and they lack a sense of proportion.”

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A Steenbeck flatbed editing table — high tech in the 1970s

The spirit of collaboration is disappearing, too. “The goal of electronic editing is ‘one brain, one screen, one machine’,” explains Murch. “But is working by yourself the best thing for the most collaborative art form there is?” Assistants, relegated to their bookkeeping chores in distant rooms, now have no shoulders to peer over — no way of learning their craft. They may know computers, but nothing about how editing creates drama and emotion. “I’m worried about how training is going to occur,” says Hank Schloss of the Motion Picture Editors Guild. “Everybody wants to get their end of it done today, and to hell with tomorrow.”

But there is no going back. The digital revolution is pointed in one clear direction: the all-electronic cinema Francis Coppola envisioned almost 20 years ago. Within the next five to 10 years, digital images will begin to match the subtlety and richness of film. Then, movies will be shot on digital cameras, fed directly into computers and beamed — somehow — electronically into theaters. Look, Ma! No hands! There will be no scratches on these movies, no faded colors and missing frames. There will be visions and effects and explosions the likes of which we’ve never seen. Will they be movies any of us want to see? That will have little to do with the machines, and everything to do with the people at the controls: the artists, craftsmen, executives and moneymen who will, rest assured, still be duking it out well into the 21st century. Some things don’t change.

David Ansen is Newsweek’s film critic. He wrote this piece; I had the idea for it and did the reporting.

©1996 by Newsweek Inc. Reproduced by permission.

Eroticism in Movies

dancing

The Tantric Moviegoer

By Ray Sawhill

In a long, charged sequence in “Dirty Dancing,” the working-class hunk Johnny (Patrick Swayze) is teaching the pampered teenager Baby (Jennifer Grey) how to dance.

At one point he’s behind her and, with one hand on her bare belly, he uses the other to raise her arm up behind his head in a passionately nuzzling posture. Then he releases her arm and lets his free hand trail down her side, tracing her underarm and the outside curve of her breast. Baby bursts into laughter. Every time he attempts the move, the squirmy, eager girl gets the giggles. She just can’t contain herself.

Finally, after a few stern, almost disgusted looks from Johnny, Baby manages to keep a straight face. Her eyes twinkle softly, and her movements and breathing slow down — Baby has found her groove. Only now can the dance lesson proceed.

“Dirty Dancing” is the movie equivalent of a dopey juvenile novel, but it has a number of such primal scenes, and when it opened in 1987 it quickly became a surprise hit. Theaters were jammed with beaming, liquefying women of all ages, many of whom saw the movie over and over. What excited and pleased them wasn’t just images of great pecs, fab butts and poppin’ energy. It was the movie’s portrayal of a young woman opening up to her deep sensations of lust and desire (and perhaps also the fantasy that she could come into her own, sexually, in a matter of weeks).

These days I think the culture of moviegoing has developed an incurable case of Baby’s giggles. Too often when at the movies, I feel the way I feel when I look at the local magazine stand — blinded by overbrightness, as though the whole world has gone on Prozac.

All this sexiness and so little eroticism. What happened? Eroticism has always been a wonderful motor force for moviegoers and moviemakers. Older readers will remember the sultriness in movies from the teens through the ’80s. Silent-era stars such as Theda Bara and Clara Bow had it — Bow’s most famous movie was called “It,” and erotic allure and vivacity was what “it” referred to.

Clark Gable radiated a gloating dangerousness; Cary Grant embodied, in Pauline Kael’s words, “the perfect date.” Marlene Dietrich made her very first appearance in an American movie, the 1930 Josef Von Sternberg film “Morocco,” dressed in a man’s suit, showing off exotic cheekbones and singing a slow, insinuating song. She kissed a female customer on the mouth, tipped her hat rakishly and disappeared into the shadows, leaving audiences to look forward to what ambiguous delights she might purvey next. It was a moment of Mayan/deco splendor the equal of the ornate movie theaters of that era.

Even jungle fantasies did their best to give eroticism form. In 1932’s “Tarzan, the Ape Man,” Johnny Weismuller’s build and swimming prowess are still impressive. In his loincloth, and with his hairless chest, this Tarzan is a genuine hunk. He has a heavy-lidded, sexily coiffed beauty, and his command of the animal kingdom has its allure.

Maureen O’Sullivan’s Jane is ladylike and practical. When she’s kidnapped, she’s pawed, poked and hauled around by the ape man and his animal friends; her dishevelment and wet-eyed looks of distress are very suggestive. She and Tarzan grow comfortable with each other when they horse around together in a river. She’s never felt so physically at ease as she does with this man-beast; for a moment, she bobs there in his arms, amused and aroused that he can’t understand a word she says.

There’s a dissolve, and the next time we see Jane, she’s lying on a branch above a stream. Her hair is askew, her hands weave the air and water idly, and she’s comfortable in her hips in a new kind of way. The image has a comic dreaminess — it’s one of the best movie images of post-coital satisfaction. Everything about Jane is smiley and relaxed; everything about her says, “So that’s what it’s all about.”

The way black-and-white photography stylizes movie action may help explain why so many movies of the ’30s have the quality of erotic reverie. But even in the 1950s, when color grew commonplace, directors and cinematographers knew how to use magazine layout-like compositions and designer-kitchen colors to stamp the eyeball in ravishing ways.

Hitchcock’s 1954 “Rear Window” is full of images worthy of being isolated and turned into movie posters. Grace Kelly, with perfect blond hair and red lips, wears black and white chiffon and, later, a memorable mint-colored suit; she spends the whole movie trying to seduce James Stewart.

rear window

Skeptical at first that anything’s amiss across the courtyard, she’s resourceful and twinkly once her imagination is touched, and almost impossible to shock. She’s like an enchanting child whose sweetness leads you to believe that she’s an innocent — yet, moments later, you stumble in on her playing sex games with a neighbor boy. The boundary between the innocent and the dirty simply doesn’t exist for her. She’s socially proper and privately amoral at the same time, as though that were perfectly natural; she’s as open to the pleasure of illicit thoughts as the biggest lecher, and has a secret pride in that fact.

At one point she brings over to Stewart’s apartment a tiny suitcase and announces that she’s going to spend the weekend. When she pops the suitcase open, revealing a fluffy pile of silky and satiny nothings — you can almost smell the gentle perfume she’s sprinkled on them — she gives Stewart a softly quizzical look. It’s the slyest, most charming image of a woman (boldly and demurely, proudly yet shyly) revealing her pussy to a man that I know of.

European stars such as Jean Gabin, Jeanne Moreau and Marcello Mastroianni introduced several generations of Americans to the seductiveness of the downbeat and the fatalistic. The 1960s can also boast Anna Karina and Angie Dickinson, Federico Fellini and Claude Chabrol. And then there’s 1967 and the moment near the end of “Bonnie and Clyde” when Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway realize they’re surrounded by the law; they manage to give each other a “you’ve been the world to me, baby” look the instant before the bullets begin to tear them apart.

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The 1970s were almost dementedly full of movie sex: 1971’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” was suffused with a sultry, opium-filled mood; the obvious and classic “Deep Throat” (1972) and “Last Tango in Paris” (1973) are a few other examples. In 1978, “Saturday Night Fever” showed how sexy working-class disco dancing could be, and how frustrated young men could get in the back seats of their cars.

Even the bad old Reagan/Bush 1980s and early 1990s yielded a generous, potent crop of erotic movies: David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” for instance, as well as Mike Figgis’ “Internal Affairs,” and Stephen Frears’ “Dangerous Liaisons.”

In the Clinton years, for whatever reasons, movie eroticism has become scarce. This is a peculiar moviegoing time. There have been a few pictures that have made a point of capturing and purveying eroticism — Taylor Hackford’s “Devil’s Advocate,” for example, had a reckless, overheated extravagance (and also helped introduce two promising young blonds, Charlize Theron and Connie Nielsen). The French have come through with some movies that have a shimmer: examples include “Mon Homme,” “Un Coeur en Hiver” and “Romance.” The straight-to-video underground still delivers the occasional treat. The Italian vampire movie “Cemetery Man,” for example, is worth digging up for its trash poeticism and zanily morbid fervor.

But what’s sold to us now and praised as sophisticated often couldn’t be more anti-erotic. “American Beauty”? I appreciated the voyeurism and teen nudity, but could have done without the anti-suburbia scolding. “Boys Don’t Cry” did deliver Chloë Sevigny bare breasted and trembling for a minute or two, but made you pay a high price — you spend the entire movie dreading the final rape/beating/murder. “Exotica” was “Showgirls” for high-minded depressives. Neil LaBute’s specialty seems to be taking the joy out of everything, in a corrosive, NC-17 kind of way.

Has there been a recent movie you’ve wanted to attend primarily in the hope of encountering some intriguing eroticism? Examples such as “Eyes Wide Shut” and “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” — effective or not — haven’t been numerous.

Another puzzle of recent years is: Why have the movie critics been treating movie sex and eroticism so flippantly? Can eroticism really be of so little importance to them? What, for heaven’s sake, do they go to the movies for? But perhaps they really aren’t all that interested, or perhaps their editors don’t want them to go on about the subject.

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Or perhaps I’m an exception. If it weren’t for movie eroticism, I might well be an average suburbanite, and an occasional moviegoer. Because of movie eroticism, I’ve been a dedicated moviegoer for 30 years. I can enjoy an action/adventure pic, or an indie, or a comedy. OK, seldom an indie. (And, God knows, never a Chinese film.) But I’m always, always hoping to stumble across some resonant sexiness. I’m fascinated by the way certain shots and situations work, whether for me or for other people.

I’m amazed and tickled at how much mental energy I can spend wondering about such questions as, What happened to Debra Winger’s special lustiness? And what became of the inkily perverse Jenny (“Near Dark”) Wright? Ever since seeing last year’s surprise Ashley Judd hit, “Double Jeopardy,” I’ve been thinking more than anyone ought to about that movie’s couple of moments of female nudity. The picture is a suspense number for McCall’s subscribers, the equivalent of a Mary Higgins Clark novel.

Yet women generally are turned off by nudity — as a movie executive once said to me, “Men will drive 10 miles out of their way to watch a woman take her clothes off. Women are more interested in how a man wears his clothes than in how he looks without them.” So how did “Double Jeopardy” deliver some nudity without alienating the middle-class women in its audience? Does nudity become acceptable when the rest of the movie caters expertly to their preferences? Did they take it as a bit of enjoyable spiciness? I simply don’t know.

I do know that heterosexual men and boys, given a camera, will within minutes start to plot ways of shooting women getting undressed. For all the propaganda encouraging us to believe that women can look at men in the same way men eye women — of course they can, but do they in practice? — I know of only a couple of movies where a female filmmaker looks at men with this kind of insistent gusto: Leni Riefenstahl in “Olympiad” and Kathryn Bigelow in “Point Break.” My theory is that most women tend to enjoy imagining themselves as the star who reveals herself to the camera, while most men tend to enjoy imagining pointing the lens.

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Is there a better way to explain why the covers of both men’s magazines and women’s magazines so often feature beautiful women? An underseen movie that takes some of this into account is Karen Arthur’s 1987 (those ’80s!) “Lady Beware,” starring Diane Lane. A reworking of Hitchcock from a woman’s point of view, it isn’t a triumph as a thriller — have you noticed that women generally don’t show the same passion for the mechanical and the suspenseful that men often do? But it’s full of unusual moments of feminine bodily self-awareneness. The beauty, vulnerability and sensuality that Arthur and Lane put onscreen is a convincing display of female power. Why haven’t feminist movie critics made more of this film?

If I remain an eager moviegoer after all these years, it’s largely because of my pleasure in watching female performers. I sometimes fall in love with them a little; I develop imaginary relationships with them, and wonder about their careers and their acting choices. I’m exasperated by, yet fond of, the way some actresses will protect themselves in big commercial movies, yet will give their all for art. At the moment, I’m taken by (among others) Judd. I enjoy her talent, her beauty and her several personas — she’s part down-to-earth regular gal, part I’ll-do-anything starlet, part serious-artist wannabe.

In “Normal Life,” Judd played a crazy working-class woman — a frigid cock-tease — and spent a good part of the movie naked. Has her “Double Jeopardy” audience seen “Normal Life”? Unlikely. And how would they react?

I adore Joely Richardson above all current actresses, and pray for the day when the version of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” that she filmed under Ken Russell’s direction becomes available in the States. Until then, memories of her angular eccentricity, her wit and her flesh from “Drowning by Numbers” will have to do.

Patricia Arquette, another current favorite, didn’t get naked onscreen until Lynch’s truly awful 1997 “Lost Highway.” Was it the Lynch mystique that persuaded her? In the film’s one scene of loony genius, a thug holds a gun to Arquette’s head as she stands before a repulsive Mafia chief. Without a word, she understands what’s expected, and slowly disrobes; at first she’s fearful and resentful, then she starts liking it. The scene is like a creepy embodiment of what the director-actress or audience-actress relationship can sometimes seem to be all about, and a touching reminder of how actresses sometimes triumph over the prying eyes of the men around them, and over their own self-consciousness, too.

Arquette wore her hair blond in “Lost Highway” — do actresses feel more comfortable doing nude scenes as blonds? Do directors prefer to put blond hair on their naked actresses? Mulling over such questions, my head spins; I’m happy.

Perhaps one explanation for the current near-absence of what we might call traditional movie eroticism is the preeminence of TV, video and the Web as media forms. TV used to aspire to be like the movies. Now the effort is going in the opposite direction, into making movies more like TV, ads, rock videos and Web sites. There’s a big difference between new-media sexiness and movie eroticism.

Video tends to make everything literal and raucous. Tasty bits aren’t just brought to the surface, they’re made ultrabrite, and actively go after your nerve endings. This is sex as special effects and packaging, all tweaked and Photoshopped. It’s sex for kids, the kind of sex you run out of energy for at about the age of 30 — around the same time, perhaps not coincidentally, many people lose interest in new pop music. (Has anyone yet made a movie that has intriguing sensual qualities using this new pumped-up, one-blast-after-another, nonlinear language? Some would say “Fight Club,” others have made a case for “Run Lola Run.” I’d argue for “The Matrix.” Whatever the case, there haven’t been many.)

As it’s generally used and encountered, video is either in “sell” mode (snazziness and production values = you’re being sold) or “reality” mode (no professionalism = truth), interrupted by the occasional blast of ESPN2-style nutcase edginess: ahh, “excitement!” Your nerves get a jangling, but you may wind up feeling like a figure from one of those out-of-focus, dysfunctional-life-in-the-‘burbs literary book jackets: a flattened, wispy creature romping wanly in a backyard somewhere, recalling — too late! — the bliss of not growing up.

No wonder younger people sometimes say they feel like oversated, over-focus-grouped consumers before they feel like anything else. During a water-cooler conversation with a lively young co-worker the other day, I made a passing reference to “adult pleasures.” “Such as what?” she said challengingly.

If media sexiness tends to be like a Big Gulp, movie eroticism can sometimes be like wine; it can have layers and depth. At its best, it’s about seduction and invitation, and it coaxes responses out of you, even if (occasionally) brutally. It’s almost embarrassing how basic some of the reasons for this are — so basic we often forget what they are.

For instance: Movies have beginnings and ends, while the many channels of video just go on and on. Within delimited movie space and time, structured experiences can be created that are comprehensible and discussable — you don’t need to banter with friends to get oriented, or to hold what you’re watching at a distance. Languorousness, so important to mood, takes on meaning in movies; in video it seems like an absence of pace. Just as basic is the fact that the movie image is far more detailed and denser than the video image. There’s simply more to take in — and because there is, you’re more likely to enter into its world.

The ritual of moviegoing contributes to the qualities we think of as cinematic. You go to a theater at a specific time. You haven’t just sat down with the remote. You’re in the movie’s home, not your own, and when a movie works, you rise up into it. You submit in order to discover, and the experience can be like exploring both the world and your own imagination. You’re doing this in the dark, of course, half in private and half among other people: Who needs Plato’s Retreat?

The limitations movies impose — the schedules, the frames around the image, the beginnings and endings, everything that stands between them and virtual reality — can contribute to experiences that may reach you on a deep level even when a movie isn’t very good. Exceptions do abound, but video sexiness is generally about effects (and suggests masturbation), while movie eroticism suggests a way of experiencing, and interacting with, all of life. (Is it only me or do other people sometimes feel as though they’re surrounded by only two classes of Americans these days: happy masturbators and unhappy masturbators?)

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that sex conceived of as excitement-that-aims-for-nothing-but-to-become-faster-and-noisier always lets us down. Had I been less startled, what I might have said to that young co-worker is that some adults discover a larger world of sensation when they view eroticism not as a restless search for arousal, but as a matter of sinking into the moment, whatever that happens to be, and exploring what’s there. Moviegoing can be approached in that spirit, and when it is, it can become an occasion for reverie and poetry, for lust, sadness and discovery — and for probably much else.

Let’s first clear our palates of a few common assumptions, the main one being that sex must always have to do with feeling bright, energized and cheerful — with feeling good. That’s an assumption best left to sugar addicts, Jolt fanatics, the crude and the very young.

The other is that pretension, absurdity and silliness are anti-erotic. A strength of Americans may be their lack of pretension. But rote anti-pretentiousness can cut you off from experiences you might enjoy — almost the entire French film tradition, for instance.

It may be that Americans would be better off if they were able to find pretension erotically amusing. Those French actors up there carrying on about anguish, sex and philosophy? It’s all make-believe, just light on a screen. French characters on the movie screen become what they always should have been, our playthings. What’s more absurd than what turns us on and our pursuit of that? We need to see the humor in our pursuit of erotic experience, and to learn that giddiness and sexiness can enhance each other.

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Think of the Fred Astaire/Cyd Charisse “Girl Hunt” dance sequence in “The Band Wagon”; it’s nothing but a stylish, swingin’ parody of Mickey Spillane novels, yet my mind has returned to it regularly and with intense erotic pleasure ever since I first saw it several decades ago. Charisse wears an impassive expression, a black Louise Brooks hairdo, and a huge, fluffy coat, which she sheds as though whisking the cover off the signature dish at Lutèce. She stands forth in a bright-green mini-dress, its skirt made of fabric slats. Each one is a frame for her life-of-their-own legs, and Astaire’s reaction to her is a witty piece of calligraphy. Then the comic tango of lust and seduction begins. The sequence might have been conceived of by the writers at Mad magazine, yet, as choreographed by Michael Kidd and shot in MGM’s best rubies-and-emeralds colors, it has its own straight-faced heat.

There are many things about movies that almost force us to take them erotically. The detail and size of the image, the proximity we feel to the performers, the intensification of the situations through dramatic means, the kinesthetics of movement and scene changes, for instance. I’ll use a couple of familiar movies for illustration, “Basic Instinct” and “Chasing Amy.” Each features a blond, lesbianism and lots of dirty talk, yet they have strikingly different feels. A sommelier might ask you to focus on a wine’s color, its nose, its palate and finish. I suggest that if you ask yourself the following questions the next time you watch a movie, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself experiencing that movie more erotically. No money-back guarantee, but you can flame me if you’re disappointed.

What is the movie’s mood or tone?

Not because there’s any right or wrong answer, but because making the effort at putting some answer, any answer, into words is a way of opening your mind to the movie — you’ll begin to mix your thoughts and responses with the matter of the movie.

“Chasing Amy” is known for its raunchy dialogue and humor, but the film’s tone is full of regret — about losing friends, about realizing that hopes and possibilities have passed you by, about what can’t be unmade and how, like it or not, you finally have to live with that. It’s an unusual mix of the touchingly melancholy and the explosively rude.

“Basic Instinct” is flamboyantly melodramatic, hard-charging and intense, “adult” in an almost comically determined way. Its world is one of fantasy, antagonism and danger. It brings together the coarse and the glamorous; it’s the movie equivalent of a leather-faced old roué who comes on too hard, yet still has a few good tricks left to peddle. It’s like supercharged porn, square yet evil.

How does the movie engage your imagination?

“Chasing Amy” relies on its offbeat setting, and on unusual types — comic book artists and Jersey semi-hipsters. Its blond embodies a flaw in the script; you never really know what she’s up to. Yet that works because you keep hoping to find out. And with her big Martina Hingis smile, her downtown jewelry, her broad, flat, Slavic-style face, she’s a whore/madonna who seems to exist only to fascinate Catholic boys, then make them feel inadequate. She’s a phantom, yet enticing.

“Basic Instinct,” on the other hand, uses voyeurism. We’re always trying to get a peek — we’re like the sweaty, overawed guys in the interrogation room who watch Sharon Stone uncross her legs. If the movie works for you, you may find that it hammers its way crudely into some of your dirtiest desires; it puts you in the position of peeping on your own fantasies. The sex shocks keep us off balance. We don’t know from moment to moment how far the movie’s going to go.

The icy, willful blond who’s probably up to no good is an image of mystery and eroticism from far back in movie history, and it was canny of writer Joe Eszterhas and director Paul Verhoeven to use this image in a sexed-up thriller. As Verhoeven uses her, and as Stone portrays her, the Catherine Trammell character never loses her luster despite all the nudity. She’s seen with near-pornographic explicitness; we see the Stone beaver, yet she and her character remain mysterious.

This is a rare accomplishment, and it raises a question: Once everything you could ever want is not only made available but is pushed at you, how does erotic reverie flourish? It’s not just that nudity and explicit language can overwhelm reserve. It’s also a matter of what surrounds the movies today — the reports on movie grosses, the regular behind-the-scenes and how-they-did-it articles in Premiere, Entertainment Weekly and the Sunday supplements, and the confessional interviews. It’s too much. What remains to be found out?

How does the movie engage your senses?

Movies are, empirically speaking, made up only of image and sound — how absurd to talk about them engaging the other senses. Yet when, say, you eat a Moroccan dinner, it isn’t just your senses of taste, smell and touch that are tickled. In your mind, you see things (the Casbah!) and you hear things (belly-dancing music!). A note to the politically anxious: Fantasies seem to operate in terms of stereotypes and archetypes, and if they’re to be explored and enjoyed we mustn’t be too censorious.

“Chasing Amy” is full of cigarettes, beer bottles, old sofas, Army-surplus slacker clothes, Jersey parks and nothing-special chilly days. The first big emotional scene is set — movie convention! — during a rainstorm, but the argument takes place on a random industrial block, in front of a heap of stray cardboard cartons. In the midst of the film is the image of Joey Lauren Adams, her eyes and teeth wet, her face glossy with makeup and a little sweat, wearing a net shirt and smooching with a girl. She and the environment set each other off. The film’s writer/director, Kevin Smith, has sub-rudimentary camera skills, yet that works here — you fill in the camerawork yourself.

“Basic Instinct” is shot in Douglas Sirk-goes-insane colors that make you feel a prickle — hot sun on your skin, perhaps, or cocaine in your nose. The fast cars, the ice picks, the tanned flesh of Stone — it’s all luxurious to the point of repulsiveness, yet delicious, too.

What is your relationship with the performers?

Performers are nearly always the focus of our fantasies and speculations. Watching “Chasing Amy,” I find myself wondering and musing about Adams. That gesture she makes with her hands indicating fist-fucking — how did she feel doing that? Mischievous? Shy? Did the director have to overcome any resistance on her part?

Watching “Basic Instinct,” I remember that I’d been following Stone for years. I’d noticed that she’d learned something about acting since her performances in “King Solomon’s Mines” and “Irreconcilable Differences,” and that she’d developed some emotional daring. I remember too that shortly before doing “Basic Instinct” she’d done a photo spread in Playboy. Did an agent persuade her that it was now or never? Did a boyfriend? Did she decide on her own? Did she need drugs and champagne to get her through some of these scenes?

One could go on and on. And, watching a movie, one generally does. For men, speculation about actresses almost always boils down to two questions: What would she be like to fuck? And, what’s she like when she comes? But why stop there? Why not also wonder: What’s it like for her to know that so many people watching are having imaginary relationships with her? If I were her boyfriend and saw this movie, how would I feel about her performance? How would I feel about the way she has revealed herself? What kind of sex would we have after the screening?

Women’s erotic conjectures may tend to go off in other directions. I once overheard some female colleagues raving about the sexiness of the movie “Ethan Frome.” When I expressed surprise about their enthusiasm, they laughed and said, “You wouldn’t understand. It’s all about buildup.”

Such private and semiprivate speculations and fantasies are unavoidable parts of moviegoing. My feeling is that, since we’re going to have them anyway, we might as well indulge and relish them. Some filmmakers have been able to weave our thoughts and fantasies about performers into their films. The results have been such glories as “Trouble in Paradise” and “Tales of Ordinary Madness.” And “The Band Wagon,” come to think of it.

If you’ve seen “Chasing Amy” and/or “Basic Instinct,” I’m hoping that you were comparing your impressions and memories to mine. Perhaps you had a moment when you were annoyed, or pleased. Perhaps you pulled back and gave your own memories and sensations a little musing attention.

It’s a pity these moments aren’t recognized and discussed more widely, because they can mean so much. When you’re in that state, it can seem as if space is being made available inside you for savoring; it can feel as if you’ve let go the day-to-day and dropped into something more essential and succulent; it can seem as if your mental focus has melted into the object or sensation of its attention. Everything stands in high relief, and seems available in a way it doesn’t in our usual lives. These falling-into-sensation-and-feeling moments can be terribly elusive. We don’t know how or why we get there. Often when we notice them, they vanish. But you can find your way back, over and over again. You can linger, extend, explore. You can — hint, hint — have sex while in this state. You can also watch and discuss movies while in it. Movies themselves can help us find and grow familiar with these states.

I’m as annoyed by the idea that movie-watching can be an art form as by the M.F.K. Fisher argument that eating can be an art form — moviemaking and cooking, yes, but not watching or eating. Still, movie-watching can certainly become a more adventurous, mysterious thing than it usually is. If you’re so inclined, the whole world of art, movies and literature can become an erotic playground.

If you do watch most movies on videotape, may I suggest one final trick? Imagine while you’re watching a movie on TV that you’re at the movies. The screen is so tiny not because it’s in your living room or at the foot of your bed, but because you’re in the last row of a crowded theater. It’s dark, you’re beside your sweetie, and otherwise among strangers. You aren’t talking and there’s no need to wiseacre — you’ll compare impressions, crack jokes and swap confessions later, over coffee or cognac. For now, the moment is all about steeping in the mood, and about observing, now and then, the stirrings of your senses and your imagination. Not to worry: The observing won’t kill the sensations, at least not if you view sampling them as part of the moment. You’re a divided soul, you might wail. How true — yet perhaps there are better things to do with such feelings than to fight them.

As Jennifer Grey’s Baby learned in “Dirty Dancing,” it’s a lot more rewarding to enter the game than it is to stand outside and giggle helplessly.

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

Biopics about Composers

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Movie Music

By Ray Sawhill

Of all the many different film genres, the composer biopic is one of the scroungiest. The tones of these films range all over the map, from the show-bizzy extroversion of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (George M. Cohan) to the hambone fruitiness of “Two Loves Had I …Puccini” to the many-layered high intellectualism of “Harvest of Sorrow” (Rachmaninoff and exile).

Despite this, one of the most remarkable aspects of the genre is how specific the expectations that we bring to these films are. Will the composer’s first professional triumph happen before or after he finds true love? And when will his long-suffering Significant Other finally lace into the composer for caring more about his music than he does about, y’know, people?

But perhaps the first question that tends to arise when we slip one of these films into the DVD player is the matter of factual accuracy. Simple moviegoing experience suggests that being “respectful of the facts” can sometimes translate into soporific viewing, while “completely untrustworthy” might very well go hand in hand with “devilishly entertaining.”

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From “Night and Day”

This is a truism well illustrated by Hollywood’s two biopics about Cole Porter. 1946’s “Night and Day” is a glossy lie that features Cary Grant at his heartiest and most hetero-seeming, while the 2004 “De-Lovely” is admirably true to the gay realities of Porter’s life. Yet “Night and Day” is a confident and enjoyable Technicolor fantasy, while “De-Lovely” is a droopy misfire.

It also needs to be said that there’s more than one way to deliver solid facts. George MacDonald Fraser makes an important point in “The Hollywood History of the World”: however untrustworthy the narratives they tell often are, history-based films nearly always supply visuals that are informative and well researched. If our modern minds are well stocked with images of what the Strauss family’s Vienna looked like and how people dressed when attending an opening at La Scala, it’s because moviemakers have created these pictures for us. Visuals are facts, too.

As with the movies of any genre, a big part of the fun of watching composer biopics is taking note of how the filmmakers are playing the genre’s game. If a romantic comedy needs to give its “meet cute” plot-point some charm, and if a gangster movie needs to make something tense out of the moment when the ambitious anti-hero declares his independence from his mentor, composer biopics need to address their own set of requirements. Here are some of them:

What is the container for the film’s incidents going to be?

Most lives don’t have dramatic arcs built into them, after all, and this is perhaps especially the case with the lives of creative types who spend a lot of time alone. To engage us and deliver some rounded-off satisfaction, feature-length biopics will almost always do some intensifying and heightening. It has to be said that, in this area, filmmakers in the field of composer biopics could show a little more invention than they often do. From “Mahler” to “The Double Life of Franz Schubert,” biopics of classical composers too often begin and end with the composer ill or dying and reviewing the events of his life.

To what extent should the filmmakers connect the composer’s creations with the events of his life?

It would be silly to pretend that unfortunate life-episodes always result in sad music, or that upbeat times always find expression in happy compositions. Yet if no connection can be made at all between a composer’s life-events and his music, what’s the point of the picture? Perhaps this conundrum helps explain why we haven’t yet seen a notable biopic about that unstoppable workhorse Haydn. Cheerful or gloomy, he seldom failed to crank out his expected allotment of music. Where’s the drama in that?

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From “Amadeus”

How to people the supporting cast?

Mothers, lovers, rivals and managers turn up with regularity, fathers and children rather less often. An admirer or rival can be useful as a point of entry for the audience. “Amadeus” — nothing if not an effective piece of audience engineering — provides the classic example of this, with Salieri (in real life an excellent and successful composer) used as a striving nothing for us fellow nothings to identify with as we gaze upon the bewildering wonder that is Mozart. “I am the patron saint of mediocrity!” Salieri cries, in case we’re so mediocre that we’ve failed to grasp the role he’s been assigned in the drama.

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From “Immortal Beloved”

How to portray the creative process?

This question cuts to the heart of the genre. We don’t generally explore biographies of creative people simply because we’re curious about their lives; we’re often hoping to cozy up to Creativity itself. Films about Beethoven are especially frank about this motivation: getting to know Beethoven is portrayed as getting closer to God. Bernard Rose lays the divinity stuff on very thick in his Kubrick-influenced (and sexily enjoyable) 1994 “Immortal Beloved.” Lightning flashes, revulsions and raptures, funny shivers felt by female fans … God in all his incomprehensibility is manifesting Himself through the music of this cloddish, inspired peasant.

One of the peculiar characteristics of the genre is the way these films so often make a point of distinguishing between music in the abstract and popular tune-making — and do so not as a practical matter but as a big deal. Music in the abstract is inevitably understood to involve suffering, and to represent a Statement About Life. As a striking recent Norwegian biopic asks straight out in its title: “Edvard Grieg: What Price Immortality?” Audience-pleasing, by contrast, is regularly presented as mere entertainment, and as shoddy and transient. In a 1972 British miniseries about the Strauss family, even the busy, prolific and rich Johann Jr. finds time to mope about his lack of gravitas and dignity. “I sometimes wonder what I might have made of my talents had the music not come so easily,” he confides morosely to a visiting Brahms, who receives this confession with a skeptical, indeed disbelieving, look.

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From “A Song to Remember”

Just as marked in the genre is the near-omnipresence of the Romantic point of view. You almost never get away from it — and, like the art-versus-entertainment theme, it can get to be a bit much. Romantic myths are of course highly picturesque and dramatic; they also have their practical uses. In his book “Composers in the Movies: Studies in Musical Biography” (2005), John C. Tibbetts confesses that what cemented his interest in classical music as a boy was a moment in the colorful Chopin biopic “A Song to Remember.” The tubercular Chopin hunches over the piano and gives a cough. “A spot of blood spatters onto the keyboard” — and with that image, another music fan was born. It’s just that one can tire of the whole Genius/Divinity/Immortali­ty value-set. More power, then, to directors Straub and Huillet for their resolutely dispassionate and avant-garde “Chronicles of Anna Magdalena Bach,” with Gustav Leonhardt as Johann Sebastian, piously devoting himself to the daily grind of his musical duties. But we could also use a few mainstream films that spotlight Classical, Baroque or folk points of view.

Rather surprisingly, the genre has a couple of specialists. The form’s grand old man is British director Ken Russell. He has a well-deserved reputation for flamboyance that sometimes obscures some major virtues: no matter how controversial they often are, all of his composer biopics are informed by a genuine understanding of music, as well as by a sympathetic (if often bitchy) appreciation of the souls of artists.

My favorite of Russell’s films is an uncharacteristically small and sober early example — a seventy-three-minute-long TV drama about Frederick Delius called “Song of Summer” (available as disc 3 of the Ken Russell at the BBC DVD package). Russell wrote the script in collaboration with Eric Fenby, who as a young man had worked as Delius’s amanuensis, and it’s an honest, indeed sometimes painful, portrayal of both a difficult character — Delius was far from the most lovable of men — and the heartbreaks and rewards of a creative life. A very moving, if bittersweet, classic, the film also addresses very directly one of the most basic of questions that making a biopic raises: do you try to cover the entirety of your subject’s life or try to nail his or her character by focusing on one well-defined episode? By dealing only with Fenby’s time with Delius, “Song of Summer” demonstrates how much can be extracted from the more modest approach.

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From “The Music Lovers”

Of Russell’s big-budget, sweeping and sensationalistic extravaganzas, the most successful is “The Music Lovers,” a 1970 feature about Tchaikovsky. It’s a gossipy and catty bash that’s full of the bursting-out-of-the-closet spirits of the ’70s. Where earlier film treatments of the Tchaikovsky story had sidestepped the question of the composer’s sexuality and instability, Russell and his star, Richard Chamberlain, dive right in. They give us a Tchaikovsky who’s a queeny hysteric, a morally reprehensible narcissist and a sponge. Right from the film’s first scene — an all-male romp in the snow — this Piotr is a lusty but fragile, hyper-gifted but overeager, anxiety-ridden train wreck waiting to happen.

Much of the film concerns his mad attempt to construct a heterosexual life for himself. These passages are harsh, ungenerous and probably unfair, but they’re also intense, funny and very entertaining. Antonina Miliukova, the woman who married Tchaikovsky, is portrayed as a money-hungry liar and climber with less than no interest in music. Their disastrous honeymoon is one of movie history’s more memorable nightmare sequences. When Antonina (Glenda Jackson) bares first her breasts and then her pubic hair to Piotr in an attempt to stir his lust, the poor man’s horror merges with the rocking of the train compartment the newlyweds are sharing into a gaudy image of erotic nausea. Russell delivers an unexpectedly vivid character in Antonina’s mother, wickedly conceived of as a Dickensian cockney so amoral that she cheerfully pimps out her own daughter. And the client roster the women service! “I’m quite famous, you know,” Antonina murmurs as one man nuzzles her neck. “Nearly as famous as you are, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.” Not long after, Mom ushers in a horny Alexander Borodin.

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From “Lisztomania”

Russell went even farther with his campier instincts in his ultra-flamboyant, notorious 1975 “Lisztomania,” which proposes Liszt as a bare-chested glitter-rock icon. I didn’t enjoy it as much as “The Music Lovers,” but it’s certainly worth searching out. Full of nudity, disco-ready renditions of Liszt’s music and S&M fantasy sequences, the film comes — for better and worse — as close to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” as any composer-biopic ever has. It’s also true to the general outlines of Liszt’s life, as well as amazingly shrewd about the nature of tabloid stardom.

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The genre’s other specialist is another Englishman, the less well-known Tony Palmer. Palmer has his own kind of cinematic daring, and he has made as many pictures about composers as Ken Russell has. But he’s a far more intellectual figure; a typical Palmer film is a mélange of staged material, research scraps and New York Review of Books-style musings. Though his work is so reflective that it often puts me right to sleep, it still deserves to be sampled. My suggestion is to start with either “Testimony,” his engrossing and complex treatment of Shostakovich’s battles with Stalin, or “England, My England,” his movie about Henry Purcell. I liked the latter film somewhat better. It makes the Restoration era visually unforgettable; it portrays the composer as a robust and politically capable man of his era; and it takes the trouble to clearly lay out the options (court, church, theater) that a professional composer had at that time and in that place. Purcell’s lovely, proud music — supervised here by John Eliot Gardiner — is an ear-clearing pleasure.

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From “Impromptu”

Of the genre’s other major pleasures, let me urge you not to overlook:

  • James Lapine and Sarah Kernochan’s 1991 “Impromptu,” a lighthearted, poignant caprice about the French novelist George Sand’s infatuation with Chopin. Judy Davis is at her comically overdramatic best as the scandal-courting Sand.
  • “Elgar’sTenth Muse,” a beautifully sad two-hander about an infatuation between the elderly composer and a young violinist. James Fox and Selma Alispahic portray the conflicts between reserve and yearning, age and youth touchingly and trenchantly.
  • Renato Castellani’s eleven-hour (or eight-hour, depending on the version you get hold of) long Italian production “The Life of Verdi.” Beautifully mounted and shot, as solid and responsible as any birth-to-death biography, it features a many-sided and fully felt portrayal of Verdi by English actor Ronald Pickup, and vocal performances by Callas, Nilsson and Pavarotti. One lesson to be learned from this beauty: if you’re going to take the all-inclusive approach to telling a composer’s life, it’s perhaps best to do it at the length of a miniseries.
  • Abel Gance’s 1937 “Un Grand Amour de Beethoven.” Yet another variant on the Immortal Beloved theme, this stirring absurdity is enjoyable for its unbridled myth-making. Gance — famous for his barn-burning silent film “Napoleon” — delivers a virtuoso directorial performance. The film is full of poetic closeups and brilliant editing flurries; the legendary French actor Harry Baur gives a towering performance; and the passages conveying the composer’s growing deafness are as heartbreaking as can be.
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From “Un Grand Amour de Beethoven”

But why talk so much about quality? Let’s admit flat-out that it’s impossible to sustain an interest in any movie genre if you haven’t learned how to relish its stinkers too. God knows that the composer-biopic genre has delivered no shortage of these. Two casting goofs to be marveled at:

  • The arch and languorous Dirk Bogarde was a peculiar choice to play that outgoing whirlwind Liszt in 1960’s “Song Without End.” Bogarde spends the film looking as if he’d rather be making elegantly weary, poisonous remarks about some Countess’s fashion choices than delivering himself body and soul to his hordes of sweaty and salivating lady-fans.
  • What was Agnieszka Holland thinking when she chose Ed Harris to star in her film “Copying Beethoven”? God knows you can’t criticize Harris for failing to give the role his all — but he is what he is, and this is surely the only Beethoven in movie history who comes across like a beer-swigging, iron-pumping ol’ Austin cowboy-hippie.

A special award for all-around badness beyond the call of duty has to be reserved for “Song of Norway,” a 1970 tribute to the life of Grieg made in the dirndls-and-clog-dancing style of “The Sound of Music.” This isn’t just the worst composer-biopic of all time, it’s one of the most terrifyingly wholesome movies ever made. With Grieg’s not-very-catchy songs presented as though he intended them to be sunny Broadway showstoppers, and featuring innumerable montages of buttercups, seagulls and waterfalls, “Song of Norway” may qualify both as essential Bad Movie viewing and as an all-time camp classic. May it be issued on DVD soon.

All of these movies deliver their share of pleasures, whether of the intended or unintended sort, and I look forward to many further entries in the field. There’s so much material yet to be explored, after all. William Byrd? Why not? Let’s hope someone takes on Leiber and Stoller. And is anyone else as eager as I am for “The Anton Webern Story”?

©2009 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Opera News.

“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.