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Les amants du Pont-Neuf (1991)
It's an old story: a filmmaker is crowned king of all he beholds. As a follow-up to his calling card, he decides to call in all his chips--make an homage to the romantic opium of High Hollywood. But he's not going to make the usual pablum--he's going to tell the truth about the ugly world he lives in while arousing us silly with googly-eyed, sentimental movie tropes. Martin Scorsese followed up TAXI DRIVER with NEW YORK, NEW YORK, Coppola came back from APOCALYPSE NOW with ONE FROM THE HEART, and Jean-Jacques Beineix tried to top DIVA with THE MOON IN THE GUTTER. And in 1991, the then-wunderkind of French cinema, Leos Carax, bet it all on LES AMANTS DU PONT-NEUF.
These follies--a combination of studio sugar and bitter pill--never work. Carax's movie--many agonizing years in the making--doesn't either, but its head is screwed on a little more tightly than those other films'. His hero is a homeless, inarticulate boy; his heroine, a one-eyed painter losing her one good eye. He piles on bits of shtikum from movies he's too young for: a hobo who owns the keys to a museum, tramps poisoning the cups of coffee-sipping bourgeois to pick their pockets, an antique box stuffed with franc notes perched perilously close to the Seine. The alternation between this mothball-stinky hokum and grim, Frederick Wisemanish cinema verite depictions of the life of the homeless in Paris is meant to have a dazzling teeter-totter effect.
But the combination of Cassavetes and Vincente Minnelli in NEW YORK, NEW YORK was meant to wow too--and Scorsese is a better director than Carax. The movie's yin and yang, rather than balancing, cancel each other out. And you might feel guilty about noticing that the movie's big set piece--a romantic dance on the Pont-Neuf bridge as Quatorze Juillet fireworks burst--would have been nailed twenty times better by an American hack like Michael Bay. These folly-fantasias, always dubbed "delirious" in the press, are always oddly enervated. The gimcrackery of old-time moviemaking, once the suspension of disbelief is removed, makes for a dictionary definition of hollow form. And Carax isn't helped much by his actors, especially Juliette Binoche--who gropes at the anti-glamour of her role like a one-man band playing the Kentucky Waltz with seventeen spoons.
Conte d'automne (1998)
Chevalier or chickenhawk?
The experience of an Eric Rohmer movie now involves the dissolution of the rote conversation into a focus on the underlying sound: birdsong, high heels on gravel, the tinkle of forks and the plash of vin ordinaire. The talk is so pro forma that the atmosphere is all; and that atmosphere--so evocative of a glass of Mint Melody tea sipped while listening to NPR--may explain the current renaissance of the near-octogenarian director. Rohmer's last art-house hit was PAULINE AT THE BEACH, which I suspect succeeded mostly for its poster art of Arielle Dombasle's snugly swimsuited rump. In the fifteen intervening years, the culture's clock has more than come round again; an NPR reviewer defined AUTUMN TALE as "wry, ironic, and above all civilized." And isn't that what older viewers who pay to see European movies want to spend eight dollars on, anyway?
I hoped against hope that Rohmer, whom I haven't paid much attention to in recent years, had something on the ball that I missed in my callow moviegoing youth. But a recent reviewing of CLAIRE'S KNEE--fresh, organic-feeling, stuffed to bursting with ripe travel-poster images by Nestor Almendros--showed that reiteration hasn't produced reinvention in Rohmer. His characters tend to fall into two categories--the Rueful but Still Horny Grown-ups, and the Coquettish but Surprisingly Sage Nymphets. The sleazy sting in Rohmer's and-the-children-shall-lead-us moralizing is gone; but without that Humbert flavor, what's left is creepily enervated--sentimentality without melodrama. That recipe--complacency without contrivance, without the hoky apparatus of schmaltzy lowbrow art--probably explains what makes him wry, ironic, and always civilized.
In early Rohmer--even in a grating work such as THE AVIATOR'S WIFE--there were short-storyish "psychological insights" (a familiar term of Rohmerian praise) to be gleaned. By now, finding them is like going on an Easter-egg hunt; in their place are the indulgent-but-mean leers of his women and the grimaces of lustful befuddlement of his men. Are critics and audiences so battered by blockbusteritis that work as arid as this can be greeted with euphoric sighs of relief? By now, a younger generation of French directors, such as Olivier Assayas, work this terrain with surprising, sometimes brutal results. Has a Rohmer character ever startled an audience with what they're capable of? Have the stakes ever been higher than a broken date?
AUTUMN TALE left me gasping for a little divy energy. And in a summer in which BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, EYES WIDE SHUT and AUTUMN TALE receive rapturous praise, it left me wondering what has caused American film critics' sudden burst of short-term memory loss. We've seen all this stuff before.
La mala ordina (1972)
The spaghetti-Western CHARLEY VARRICK?
Now released under the absurdly named Mack Video as the absurdly named BLACK KINGPIN, LA MALA ORDINA, once known as MANHUNT, shows the Italian seventies policier director Fernando DiLeo in peak form. The Italian cops-mob-and-corruption movies often had a neorealist tincture, not far from such British cousins as GET CARTER or THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY. (The best in this vein is the dark, harrowing VIOLENT NAPLES.) But some of them were as ripe and over-the-top as concurrent works of Italian horror; and this saga of a small-town pimp pursued, God knows why, by Mr. Big and two Vincent-and-Jules-looking U.S.-made button men, looks like the product of some torrid motel-room coitus between Sergio Leone and Don Siegel. The faces are sweaty, the beatings (to evoke Roger Ebert's memorable phrase) suggest the sound of ping-pong paddles smacking naugahyde sofas--the only thing that's missing is the groan of an Ennio Morricone score. An evening of Shane Black quips it ain't, but ninety minutes of top-shelf hardboiled groove it is.
Le genou de Claire (1970)
Buried knee, wounded heart
A self-possessed, fortyish man of the world, on the verge of marriage, summers by the seaside, where his lust fixates on a wised-up nymphet who won't have him. Unsated, his desire moves on to her blank-faced sister--or rather, the sister's lithe, tennis-playing knee.
As always in Rohmer, the audience is cautioned to check its head in the opening scenes; we are forced to dial down to a level of attention where the nuances of conversational game-playing, phony retractions and crafty grabs at checkmate, are the only blips on our radar screen. The way Nestor Almendros photographs it, the seaside locations are so sumptuously sexual they're almost pornographic; they give the genteel proceedings a pregnancy, as if Hitchcockian mayhem is on the verge of eruption. It isn't; but the climax tells a different story from the rest of this cool, crickety, blithe picture--an ominous, O. Henryish one about the price of unfulfilled male desire.
I took a look at CLAIRE'S KNEE on the occasion of the almost-eighty-year-old Rohmer's latest picture, AN AUTUMN TALE, to see how the canon held up--is Rohmer what he seems to be, a sadder-but-wiser op-ed columnist on the subject of love intrigue? Or is he the "tasteful" poet of leetle-girl lechery? I am cynically leaning toward the latter, perhaps because I'm put off by scenes in which French males nod with ironic agreement as their little cherry pie intones earnestly, "Really, I'm a very old soul." Rohmer even has a menopausal (and hence genially washed-up) female watching the fortyish roue's frustrations with a classically Gallic laugh at the human comedy of it all. Rohmer's "tolerance" has an instructional, Old Wave fuddiness about it. And the ending--in which the roue's cruelty is undone by the innocence of youth, as if teenage girls were infants forgetting they had just fall down go boom--is creepy, like a self-reassuring entry in Humbert Humbert's journal.
But Rohmer deserves his due: he's as acute a journalist of move and countermove--some of them unconscious--as Marivaux. Unfortunately, like Marivaux, Rohmer suffers from excess courtliness. One yearns for entropic real life to drool down the sides of his porcelain.
More Harvey wallbangin'
Vicious and ingenious Italian policier featuring Harvey Keitel as O'Connor, an almost impossibly surly New York detective on the take, who smokes fine cigars while basking in his one prized possession--a Central Park West apartment paid for with drug dealers' money. In what must be a comment on O'Connor's tunnel vision, the apartment is almost totally unfurnished--it's as if O'Connor blew his whole wad on the place, and had none left over to make it liveable. Narcotics-division cops are getting slaughtered by a serial killer, and one day a scrofulous, pouty British geek (John Lydon--that's Johnny Rotten to you) shows up at the illicit apartment, confessing to the crimes. O'Connor is sure Leo the Brit isn't the cop killer--but the kid has seen his illegal crash pad, so now what?
The director Roberto Faenza has made what is surely the most explicit movie ever about the homoerotic subtext of the policier genre. The first two thirds are a fiendishly crafty minuet of sudden reversals; the last is a sadomasochistic folie a deux that's closer to Pinter or Genet than Don Siegel. Lydon is shockingly effective as the pettish punk (he ought to have a cat to stroke); Harvey Keitel seems Harveyish for a while, until you start noticing his hundred strokes of physical inventiveness. A Scotch glass smashed to bits shocks O'Connor with his own unconscious fury; a pair of chopsticks O'Connor doesn't know how to use turn into Saharan spears crudely crucifying a spicy tuna roll. Sizing up the averages, Keitel has the coolest resume of any contemporary actors--and O'Connor goes up in that gallery of scream-like-a-moose Harvey angst right next to Matthew the Pimp, the shylock-pianist from FINGERS, and that very bad Lieutenant.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Emperor's new broomstick
If a beginning film class at a community college were given the task of adapting a Stephen King short story on video, the results would probably look much like this bewilderingly untalented feature, which is on its way to being the most popular independent film of all time. The two novice directors claim not to have seen Ruggero Deodato's extremely similar (and infinitely superior) CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, though the debt RESERVOIR DOGS pays to Ringo Lam's CITY ON FIRE is chump change in comparison. A snooty-toot documentary filmmaker schleps two guys into the woods of Maryland to record evidence of a fabled serial-killing witch. The two guys fill up the first thirty minutes of the movie with fart-sniffing jokes; then, when you're waiting for something terrifying to be unearthed, the crew is menaced with--a bundle of twigs? A pile of stones? A tooth? The B horror movies of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur were low on horror and high on atmospherics. Here, in the absence of palpable shocks, you get--twigs. The oafish storytelling, the "documentary" surface that wouldn't fool a child in short pants, acting that evokes the adult-entertainment industry--somehow this all spun the buzz machine and turned BLAIR WITCH into the flavor of the nanosecond. Depressingly, a friend called tonight from Houston, Texas, to report that lines curled around two city blocks. This hunk of unutterable junk feels like taps for the independent film movement: the message seems to be, You can be a klutz with a video camera, just as long as you're high-concept. (The directors' advice in an interview to aspiring filmmakers: "Find a marketable niche.")
The Last American Virgin (1982)
Next to AMERICAN PIE, this looks like a Max Ophuls movie
Boaz Davidson's Golan-and-Globus PORKY's knockoff--a remake of his popular Israeli LEMON POPSICLE pictures--remains the gold standard of eighties teen-sex comedies. In other words, it was the only good one. (I don't really include FAST TIMES in this category.) What's distinctive about it is that the funny, gnarly stuff, while it's satisfying enough, is tempered in the second half with some of the most naked melodrama about geek angst ever put in a movie--building to a shattering climax that seems stolen from an early, self-pitying O'Neill one-act. Ill-fated love has never felt so cheesy or upsetting.
Year of the Dragon (1985)
Stick together eighties Hollywood's two biggest hypermacho wackadoos--Michael Cimino and his co-scenarist, Oliver Stone--and the result is more noise than was made by Ray Milland and Rosey Grier in "The Thing with Two Heads." The hero--an embattled Polish cop (Mickey Rourke) who takes on historically entrenched corruption in New York's Chinatown--is told by those around him that he "just cares too much." His wife--a grotesque, spreading-rumped proto-diesel dyke played by the unfortunate Caroline Kava--shrills at him that "yesterday was my ovulation day, and you weren't here!" Meanwhile, some springtime trim beckons in the form of a Chinese-American TV-news spokesmodel (Ariane) who sneers at his Caucasian thickheadedness.
Rourke's Stanley White is Stanley Kowalski with a badge--a raging bull of preening self-righteousness. His abrasive dedication to his cause at all cost, his tendency to alienate all those around him, his air of unblinking monomania--sound like anyone you've heard of? Kind of like Oliver Stone, or Michael Cimino, maybe? The filmmakers can't seem to make up their mind whether Stanley is a racist vigilante screwball or the last Boy Scout; sometimes he seems to vacillate from one to the other within the same scene. Throw in a heaping helping of self-pity, some racial and sexual hysterias (these manly filmmakers jump up onto a chair like schoolgirls afraid of a mouse when the ambisextrous John Lone is onscreen), and a cocaine-like feeling of monumental importance, and you have this highly unstable pulp epic. Depending on your mood (and, no doubt, your grandparents' country of origin), the movie can have a gaga enjoyment--Cimino's Visconti-ish grandiloquence can be impressive. If a successful filmmaker's midlife-crisis crying jag turned into an overheated potboiler sounds like it rocks your world, this probably will.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Wild Orchid 2 with soaring aspirations
The last and least of Kubrick's twelve extant features, EYES WIDE SHUT suggests a wistful postscript to the theme that dominated the director's career: the turning of men into machines. In EYES, the machinelike master director yearns to be a man--to make a non-misogynistic, non-misanthropic movie that sits at eye level with its characters, viewing them with empathy rather than lordly detachment.
That the attempt is a sad botch stems first from Kubrick's choice of scenarist. Frederic Raphael is a witty and craftsmanlike British screenwriter who left the movie scene (more or less) after writing DARLING and TWO FOR THE ROAD. One can only speculate that Kubrick chose the sixtyish Brit to tell the story of an attractive, upwardly mobile Central Park West couple (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman) because he wanted a brainy but controllable foot soldier to do his bidding. (Kubrick touched up Raphael's script.)
Kubrick's and Raphael's incomprehension of contemporary sexual mores, the details of behavior and language that are specific to late-nineties America, gives this adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's "Traumnovelle" a generic, uninvestigated, sketched-in feel. Unlike the phony-looking Vietnam backdrops shot in England for FULL METAL JACKET, the upscale-Manhattan ambience of EYES isn't meant to be deliberately stylized and out-of-time; it just rings phony, flat. And the flatfooted approach to scene-building that's charming in a movie like THE SHINING--where, in beginner's fashion, Kubrick opens scenes with handshakes and hellos and ends them with goodbyes--squashes whatever atmospherics Kubrick intends here. A fairly simple night-on-the-wild-side tale is molasses'd into coma by Kubrick's plodding.
Visually generally undistinguished--except for a near-autistic fascination with the trippy properties of Christmas-tree lights--and clotted with dreadful bit players (Kubrick's favorite style of acting seems to be found in the featured parts in Hammer horror movies), EYES suggests a grotesquely attenuated episode of RED SHOE DIARIES. The problem is that our experience of sexuality has changed since Kubrick first announced plans for this movie, before the release of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE--but somehow the period stretching from amyl nitrate and herpes to Monica's cigar didn't reach Kubrick Manor, where the height of id-run-amok is depicted as a group of medieval-styled swingers staging a sort of Benedictine theme orgy.
When the hero is meant to be chastened and shattered by his experience of Sex Untrammeled, you can only stare at the screen in bafflement. Are we really meant to think that a wealthy, good-looking doctor--surely a one-time raging frat boy--has spent his adult life in New York City and never encountered drag queens, fetish balls, subway perverts, winking hookers? Tom Cruise's performance as the regular guy undone is the best thing about the movie. His boyishness and air of unsinkability, so dull when placed in synch with a go-for-it Simpson-Bruckheimer movie, gives energy and poignancy to what would otherwise be a strictly academic exercise. Nicole Kidman is an able actress who's wrecked by Kubrick's direction--which seems to be modeled after the ticking metronome David Mamet uses to hypnotize his actors like chickens. Her giggly-airhead business in the first scenes seems to be roiling toward a boil, but then Kubrick hands her a pot-smoking big-revelation scene that seems to have been paced after the fashion of an exposition-fest in an Ed Wood movie. Blam--Kidman gets vaporised by the doomsday machine.
What's touching about EYES WIDE SHUT is both that the Schnitzler material seems to have meant a lot to Kubrick, and that he had no idea what it meant. Kubrick just didn't trust himself, or didn't trust that it would be commercially sound, to give Schnitzler's ideas their proper language--free-form Expressionist poetry. Fearing becoming David Lynch, he turned himself into Adrian Lyne. Kubrick clearly took pains to make a movie that wasn't "clinical," sex-negative, girly-objectifying. But he also seems to have lost what he wanted the material to say. What's left is an "erotic thriller" paced like a late Rossellini movie. It's possible that Kubrick, a valedictorian at thesis-making, didn't have the understanding of the soft insides of human beings to make this kind of movie. Or, sadder still, nearing the age of seventy, he didn't have the energy to bring it together.
I'm Losing You (1998)
Bruce Wagner's Hollywood novels have a particular horror-movie frisson: a can't-turn-the-page-but-can't-stop-turning tension. A dark bill of goods read by a sardonic M.D. to a terminal patient, the typical Wagner story is L.A. loserdom braced onto a Renaissance canvas--a gossipy Movieline-magazine horror story given epic proportions. Wagner so loathes the calmly powerful, not-so-bright people who thwart him that he visits every kind of calamity on them--crack-induced strokes, cancer, AIDS, tabloid sex-torture. It's as if the power of his imagination and the boil of his frustration crashed into each other and made a monster hybrid--insider bitterness raised to a Mailerian scale, where the felicities of a crashed deal take on the properties of the goings-on in a Nazi death camp, or a terminal ward. A blurb in the jacket for Wagner's masterly "Force Majeure" read, "Wagner lavishes on Hollywood the kind of attention that novelists once lavished on sex, or the Second World War." Ain't it the truth: Wagner turns bellyaching into high opera.
Wagner's 1996 novel "I'm Losing You" was described by John Updike as "inhabiting a universe so cratered it's hard to turn the pages." The novel is a Boschian cry of despair from the bowels of Century City. In his new movie version, that Munchian shriek is turned into a soft, Cronenbergian whisper. The has-beens and never-weres of Wagner's ultimate dystopian L.A. are viewed not with sadomasochistic coolness here, but with gentleness and, dare I say it, love. There's nothing sentimental in this picture, and not a frame that isn't perfumed by death, but there is a quality that took me off guard. I'M LOSING YOU is a reminder, almost inaudible in this cratered blockbuster universe, of the humanistic potential of movies--the possibility of art as a guide for human beings to navigate their way out of hopeless predicaments. The insider edge is off the movie; unlike the book, it isn't about the perfectly poised name-drop. The movie might as well be taking place in Ohio: the substance of it is in its insight into beleaguered characters trying to buttress themselves with fame and money against catastrophes that claim the Hot 100 and Joe Nobody alike.
Wagner has assembled the strongest ensemble cast since BOOGIE NIGHTS. Rosanna Arquette is a strange overlap of the luminous and the feral as an art evaluater who makes a melodramatic discovery about her roots that leads to a reconnection with a mystical Jewish practice. Andrew McCarthy, as a fallen eighties actor, goes places you wouldn't imagine him capable of--he suggests a warmer, less remote Edward Norton. As a fortyish Hollywood rich kid who's HIV-positive, Elizabeth Perkins fairly scorches a hole in the movie--the rage of a magnificent woman pushed out of the box before her time lights up every scene she's in. And Amanda Donohoe, Buck Henry and Laraine Newman all have potent brief moments.
The pitfall to Wagner's genius is generally that he uses his gift for conjuring catastrophe only cruelly--it sometimes feels as if there's no possible response to his books except to faint. Here, he's put that talent to use: he questions the tactics we use to deal with the undealable. In a stroke of ill fortune endemic to the characters in Wagner's books, I'M LOSING YOU was released on the same day as EYES WIDE SHUT and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. I can only hope someone within the sound of my voice will see this beautiful, almost-great movie before, like its characters, it passes into the ether.