Archive for September 1995

Seven

September 22, 1995

In an anonymous city as dark and wet as a puddle at midnight, a vicious, brilliant killer has been dispatching people based on which of the seven deadly sins they’ve committed. Seven, the creepy and shocking thriller starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman, stumbles into the occasional plot hole — the premise is one of those neat, symmetrical conceits that invite lapses of logic — but the director, David Fincher, does a bruising job of alchemy, turning a gimmicky cop thriller into a work of spiritual horror. Fincher’s previous film was the unjustly dismissed Alien 3, a humid and bitter mood piece that worked quite well as a coda to that anguished series (at least until Alien: Resurrection). Fincher is a graduate of the MTV Film School, but unlike some of his up-from-rock-video contemporaries, he doesn’t exalt the image at the expense of words or emotions. Seven has moments as chilling and forceful as anything in The Silence of the Lambs.

Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker does something brave: He comes up with heroic characters so clichéd they have whiskers, but he puts a spin on them by … letting them talk. They reveal themselves not by the usual Screenwriting 101 quirks or habits (though there are some of those here too, unfortunately) but by their philosophy. Lieutenant William Somerset (Freeman), a veteran homicide cop, is about to retire after 34 years (3 + 4: one of the movie’s sly “seven” references for the attentive) and has a weary, cynical view of the citizens he protects and captures; he wishes the world weren’t a shithole of violence and evil, but it is, and he’s long since given up on any hope of changing things. More optimistic is his new partner, Detective David Mills (Pitt), who’s hot to close this weird deadly-sins case that’s just opened up; a man of action, he talks too much and doesn’t think enough. Walker and Fincher draw subtle parallels and differences between these men. Seven, it turns out, isn’t so much about catching the killer as about how one cop’s worldview is validated, to the despair of his partner.

Every director has a blind spot, and Fincher’s, like so many MTV boys, is a lack of spatial clarity. We don’t know where any of the settings are in relation to each other; each scene builds to a visual wallop (and also an emotional one, which is what sets Fincher apart) but never gives us our geographical bearings. That, however, may be part of Fincher’s plan. Working with the outstanding cinematographer Darius Khondji, Fincher fills the wide screen with darkness; the actors’ faces, barely illuminated, fade in from the void. The scenes of the detectives entering some pitch-black apartment and encountering the ugly leavings of madness have a suffocating, threatening mood of dread. Yet it’s not the usual dread of such thrillers, which make you afraid that something will pop out at the heroes (nothing ever does, with one sensational exception); it’s the dread associated with seeing lonely, obscure people who died in terrible pain and in terrible ways, just because a righteous madman singled them out for his wrath. The movie has some of the impact of the scene in Silence of the Lambs when the sad, heavy corpse was unveiled on the slab. It’s the human body as a playpen for insanity.

Fincher uses his stars cleverly. Brad Pitt, who has always struck me as a callow marquee idol with a little charm on loan from Robert Redford, comes through with a witty portrait of a man with lots of heart and guts but not a lot of brain cells. He makes an itchy, impatient, funny hero, and the great Morgan Freeman is around to cool him down. Incapable of a less-than-stunning performance, Freeman is a generous team player, lifting his co-stars up to his level without breaking a sweat (Pitt has Freeman to thank for much of his fine work here). It’s completely Freeman’s show, but he doesn’t carry it so much as embody its concerns. Pitt gets top billing, but we experience everything through Somerset’s wise, sad eyes. Whenever the writer gives him a philosophical speech, Freeman brings it home without a scratch, lending the words gravity without pomposity. The pocket of warmth that develops between these men stands in stark contrast to the cold shadows that close in around them.

And what about the killer? The identity of the actor who plays him was supposed to be some big secret at the time, but I don’t see why; this isn’t really that kind of movie (if we’re ever meant to think that the killer could be Somerset or Mills, there are no red-herring hints to suggest that). And the actor isn’t, say, Harrison Ford or Tom Hanks — stars that we would be shocked to find playing twisted butchers. I will say that this was the second time in 1995 that this actor (who looks and acts here like a demented Michael Stipe) has played a villain shrouded in mystery, and he plays him to eerie perfection. Near the end, the killer has a self-justifying speech that rivals Ben Kingsley’s in Death and the Maiden for pure insane logic, and the actor sells it beautifully. The righteous Mills rejects the killer’s rant as mania, but Somerset is too old inside to dismiss it out of hand: The world really is horrible, and innocence gets harder to find every day. What matters is how one responds and relates to life in spite of that. Seven will lure people on the strength of its sicko premise and baroque deaths (some of the clinical details will shock the unshockable), but it’s as serious as they come, a moral vision of an amoral landscape. By the end, when the final blood is drawn on scorched, infertile soil — a battlefield of mind and soul — the portrait of desolation is complete. Seven is the most disquieting and powerful Hollywood thriller in years.

Showgirls

September 22, 1995

vlcsnap-222807“You fuck them without fucking them,” says a showgirl’s friend about her relationship to her customers. That sums up Showgirls, a movie I expected to be sleazy, offensive, and bad, but not boring. That it’s all four at once — often in the same scene — doesn’t make it the year’s worst film, but it does make it the year’s biggest scam. I didn’t go to Showgirls for the nudity, which God knows is available elsewhere, and I didn’t go hoping for art or even a coherent story. What I wanted, I guess, was some justification for the hype, some electricity, some heat — something resembling a movie. This was the first major-studio film to be classified NC-17 (No Children Under 17), but there’s nothing in Showgirls that you haven’t seen in a dozen unrated “erotic thrillers,” or even in R-rated movies of a less repressive period, so the NC-17 rating is once again squandered.

Showgirls is all jiggle and no sizzle. That’s especially surprising coming from director Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch bad boy whose previous movie, Basic Instinct, both parodied and buried the erotic-thriller genre. Plunging into the cynical sex-slime of Joe Eszterhas’ script, Verhoeven operated with such transgressive-aggressive glee that the film holds up today as a flustered film noir farce. Showgirls, also written by Eszterhas, isn’t nearly as offensive or as guiltily pleasurable. Under the surface of writhing bodies and smutty talk lies … a morality play circa 1935, in which our innocent heroine (or relatively innocent in Eszterhas’ world — she’s an ex-hooker) learns that Las Vegas is full of bad men. The movie seems to say that life as a Vegas stripper would be fulfilling and prosperous if not for the crude sexists who run and patronize the clubs. You mean crude sexists like Verhoeven and Eszterhas?

Elizabeth Berkley, unknown to me (she was a regular on TV’s Saved by the Bell), makes her screen debut as the heroine, Nomi Malone, a drifter who hitches to Vegas and sets herself up at a cheesy nightclub. Those unfamiliar with lap-dancing can learn something from the early scenes, in which Nomi rubs her naked, sweaty merchandise all over Kyle MacLachlan (playing the “entertainment manager” of a competing club, and occasionally showing his embarrassment in the role). MacLachlan, who pays Nomi the ultimate compliment (he creams his jeans), has come to Nomi’s club with his superstar showgirl Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon). Cristal is one of those nasty, elite Eszterhas bisexual puppetmasters — you meet one every day. She zeroes in on Nomi, pulls strings to get her hired at her fancier club (which is basically Nomi’s club with slightly better decor), and has some sexual fixation on Nomi.

A fascinating movie could be made about the inner workings of the unapologetically retro Vegas clubs and the women who work there — how they interact with the clientele (who can’t all be leering pigs, as they are in this movie), how they separate their highly sexualized jobs from their home lives. Showgirls isn’t that movie. For one thing, Verhoeven doesn’t have the performers. Berkley and Gershon look their parts, but Berkley comes off as an unappealing bimbo — you look in her eyes and see Cheez Whiz — and Gershon, though coldly amusing in the Sharon Stone manner, has nothing to do except repeat her three or four basic expressions. Gina Ravera, as Nomi’s roomie Molly, suggests some warmth and depth, but Molly only exists as the movie’s drab conscience, and she endures an ugly rape scene that has various subtexts but doesn’t strike the emotional chord it should. Alan Rachins, such a great rat on L.A. Law all those years, is consistently funny as a hard-assed club owner, but his character is as poorly written as the rest.

And then there are the money scenes — the elaborate production numbers with bare-assed showgirls parading around the stage as fireballs go up and pouting male dancers writhe around them. It’s all very ’80s, like the hideous “Satan’s Alley” number at the end of Staying Alive; if this is what real nudie shows are like these days, I’d just as soon avoid Vegas. The dancing isn’t erotic, it’s aerobic. Honestly, I don’t get it. And if the ridiculous, thrashing sex scene in MacLachlan’s pool is supposed to get guys hard, it’ll most likely leave them as limp as the movie itself. Showgirls is the latest nasty-sex movie — a conservative genre in disguise, creating a world in which sex boils down to the user and the used, all of whom are degraded and guilty. Even the grossest porn is more cheerfully sexual than this movie. It’s a lap-dance, but it’s not likely to make anyone come.

“I’m erect,” says Rachins to Nomi, comparing his dick to her nipples. “Why aren’t you?” If Verhoeven and Eszterhas (the Erectile Duo) asked me the same question, I’d show them two videos to shut them up: Don’t Look Now, which contains the gentlest, most fumbling and naturalistic (and therefore hottest) lovemaking scene ever put on film, and any Astaire-Rogers musical, whose romantic dance numbers remain more erotically expressive than anything in Showgirls.

Clockers

September 13, 1995

500px-Clockers_20What people don’t get about Spike Lee is that he has no particular problem with white people. He has a problem with people who make African-Americans poor, addicted, or dead. That very often means white people, alas; but in Clockers, it also means other black people. Clockers is messy and didactic, but it’s complex in a way that a tidy film can’t be. Black cops, black mothers, decent African-Americans of every background and gender, all do their best to stem the tide of racial suicide: young black guys killing each other over nothing. But as long as there is human weakness, there will be people of all colors to prey on it. We have met the enemy, and he is us.

Lee is 38 now, and a husband and father, and Clockers is his passionate plea for the violence to stop. The source novel, by Richard Price, whose script Lee reworked, was a vast Dostoyevskian study of two men: Strike, a 20-year-old “clocker” (crack dealer) looking to retire from the street, and Rocco Klein, a homicide cop close to retirement himself. The book’s magic was in the way these men’s worlds collided while remaining a universe apart. Lee has jettisoned almost all the Rocco material, sacrificing much of Price’s narrative depth. Instead, Lee has irised in on Strike, resulting in a very different Clockers. (The title now seems to refer only to the crack dealers; Price meant it to include Rocco, who watches the clock tick towards his retirement.) The movie is sometimes excessive and clumsy, but its roughness is affecting. In all, this is perhaps Lee’s most emotionally committed filmmaking since Do the Right Thing.

Strike (Mekhi Phifer) is too smart and too cautious for his work; he has a bleeding gut and a perpetual expression of nausea. This isn’t a drug-dealer-with-a-heart-of-gold. Like Price, Lee delineates the allure of crime to fatherless boys — crime represented by veteran hardcases who both nurture and intimidate their young protegés. Years ago, the fatherless Strike fell under the thrall of the legendary Rodney (Delroy Lindo), who uses his small variety store as a front for a training ground for clockers. Lindo, with his easy manner and honey voice, gives us the most seductive and frightening portrait of evil we’ll see this year. Rodney positions himself as these kids’ ticket to prosperity, and they don’t question him. When Rodney gives Strike an oblique order to kill an uppity clocker who’s been pocketing too much of the profits, Strike sees it as an opportunity, an honor — but only for as long as he’s in Rodney’s car, under his spell. Afterward, it’s just one more thing on his mind, turning his stomach to acid.

The offending clocker turns up dead. For a long time, Lee keeps us unsure who pulled the trigger (unless we’ve read the book). Was it Strike, or was it his upstanding older brother Victor (Isaiah Washington), who may have snapped under the strain of being decent? Victor turns himself in, offering a story that detective Rocco (Harvey Keitel) pokes full of holes. In the novel, Richard Price served up several red herrings, including a fearsome young hit man absent from the movie. Spike Lee isn’t into whodunit; his Clockers asks “Why does this happen?” Those who expect a twisty, satisfying resolution to the murder will be disappointed. Lee couldn’t be less interested in the fake-out games that made Price’s 600-page novel read like a meteor. He stays with what’s important to him: the cult of violence, the business of drugs, the endless racial suicide — themes that have been covered in other recent movies but not, I think, so impressionistically.

Rodney has a fatherly touch with Strike, and Strike, in turn, gives the same attention to a young boy who watches, starry-eyed, as the clockers do business on the benches of Brooklyn. Clockers has an aching, pervasive mood of despair. First-time cinematographer Malik Sayeed gives the images a desaturated, grainy texture that seems to flesh out the characters and bleed them dry at the same time; it’s a switch from the bold, clear-eyed lighting used by Lee’s previous DP, Ernest Dickerson. The camerawork is often jiggly and hand-held, recording the mechanics of clocking as if a tourist with a camcorder were catching it on the fly. Spike Lee almost always tries something daring in each new film, and he always pulls off something amazing and does something else embarrassing. I doubt even Martin Scorsese, who coproduced Clockers and once planned to direct it, could have improved on Lee’s staging of Rodney’s flashback to his first kill. The emotions — fear, disgust — mesh with the jagged visuals. The same can’t be said of the climax, with Rocco interrogating Strike’s young protegé. It plays like an anti-crime commercial starring Harvey Keitel as himself; he even, God help us, looks into the camera and says “You wanna do the right thing.”

I cringed at that, and at some other moments. Price’s novel wasn’t perfect either. Both book and movie address weighty issues in a crime-story format, a difficult balancing act unless you’re James Ellroy. This is an odd period for crime movies anyway. Scorsese is still the acknowledged master, whipping up gangster epics that feel definitive. On the other end of the spectrum, you have postmodern pranksters like Tarantino and Bryan Singer, who love crime movies for their rhetorical possibilities, the parodic spectacle of tough guys whacking each other with words as well as bullets. Clockers is somewhere off to the side, loudly insisting on responsibility and sanity.

Spike Lee has finally made a genre film, but he hasn’t stooped to conquer. There are no exhilarating “Spike moments,” no scenes that make us feel the sensual pleasure Lee takes in moviemaking. He makes us feel something else this time. Clockers is a story Spike Lee wishes he didn’t have to tell.

Jupiter’s Wife

September 8, 1995

timthumbMaggie Cogan, a homeless woman living in Central Park, is the riveting subject of this compassionate documentary. Friendly and forthcoming, Maggie gradually imparts all her beliefs to director Michel Negroponte: that she’s the daughter of Robert Ryan and Maureen O’Sullivan; that she was once married to a man she calls Jupiter; that John Lennon is alive and making antique furniture; and so on. Exploring Maggie’s past, Negroponte comes up with some fairly persuasive reasons for her delusions. Like Robin Williams in The Fisher King, Maggie has built a mythological fantasy world to insulate her from the pain of her life. She plays lovingly with her many dogs, which are basically replacements for her own children who were taken away from her. Negroponte allows Maggie her own outlaw dignity, so that, when she lucks into an apartment, our response is not relief but actually mild disappointment — she had seemed so much more vibrant in “Erebus” (her name for Central Park), in tune with the “air waves” and close to “the shadow of the living room.” Borderline disturbing (we see footage of a younger, more stable Maggie) but ultimately moving. Shot on video, originally shown on Cinemax. If you don’t want to be depressed, don’t go Googling to see what happened to Maggie after the movie’s events.

To Die For

September 8, 1995

Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman), the ice-hearted weatherwoman at the center of To Die For, seems to exist entirely on the surface. She’s on TV even when she isn’t on TV; she’s a walking commercial for herself. To Die For is a dark-carnival satire on the media, a favorite punching bag of late. Suzanne represents not only the blankness of electronic culture but the blankness of those on both sides of the tube who consider TV the pinnacle of human potential. To have one’s image transmitted to a piece of household furniture is to achieve nirvana. We laugh knowingly and uneasily at the movie, and we laugh knowingly at our own unease.

To Die For is certainly unlike anything the director, Gus Van Sant, had done before. His first two features, Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, were like fever logic: You could no more do justice to them by describing them than you could effectively describe a pleasant but unsettling dream — your attempts to evoke the experience with rational waking language become silly and reductive. (“It’s about these two male hustlers, see, and some of it is based on Shakespeare, and …. Hey, where you goin’?”) Van Sant’s last film, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, was a travesty, a foolishly addled fantasia only a major talent given free rein could have made. To Die For has a crisp professional snap, as if the producer had splashed cold water on Van Sant between takes. The script, by Buck Henry, based on Joyce Maynard’s novel, is acrid and tight and structured like a documentary; following Henry’s blueprint, Van Sant has little room to wander. Yet the true heart of To Die For — what sets it apart from the other recent media-evil movies — is in the scenes when Van Sant softens his focus, lets up on the dart-throwing, and stays closest to Maynard’s penetrating novel.

Suzanne kneels at the altar of Maria Shriver and all the other glamorous priestesses of network news; she patterns her life on theirs. She marries Larry (Matt Dillon), a harmless, amiable lunk who runs a bar and pressures Suzanne to settle down and have kids. Children aren’t part of Suzanne’s equation; neither, really, is Larry (which raises the question of why she married him). Larry becomes an obstacle that Suzanne must remove. Working on a “Kids Speak Out” segment for the local cable-access station, Suzanne prowls the small-town high school and picks out three outcasts, two of whom she actively seduces: Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix), a heavy-metal stoner drowning in his own libido, and Lydia (Alison Folland), a sad, heavy girl who sees Suzanne as a mother, sister, and savior. Suzanne weaves an intricate web of lies, promises, and flattery, luring the kids into her plot to get Larry out of the way.

Joyce Maynard based her story loosely on the Pamela Smart case. Her novel was less about the media circus or the facts of the murder itself than about the human consequences of Suzanne’s amorality — the ordinary, anonymous people whose lives crashed against the sharp rocks of her ambition. Suzanne gives the kids what they need (sex, attention) until she gets what she needs from them. At several points, Van Sant calls a time-out to the snickering black comedy so we can listen to Jimmy and Lydia pouring out their disillusionment, and Phoenix and Folland reward him with wrenching portraits of teenage wasteland — far more evocative and disturbing than anything in Kids. Without them, To Die For would be a sleek cartoon version of Network rewritten by James M. Cain.

Nicole Kidman keeps you watching; she creates an airhead who’s fun to loathe. But Van Sant’s sad compassion for the kids doesn’t extend to Suzanne. Maynard didn’t ask our sympathy for this blow-dried devil, but she did suggest that there was something tragic and chilling about someone of Suzanne’s obviously tiny talent entertaining such lavish dreams to the point of murder. (Suzanne wouldn’t have gone far, Larry or no Larry.) We saw Suzanne as a victim of her own deluded view of the American dream. Kidman gives a crowd-pleasing Serial Mom performance, which would have been fine in Serial Mom. But when she’s acting with Phoenix or Folland, or, for that matter, with Illeana Douglas and Dan Hedaya as Larry’s sister and dad — actors who are permitted to express basic human feelings and seem to exist in another, more naturalistic movie — Kidman looks so two-dimensional she’s almost an abstraction of shallowness. Even when Suzanne drops her pearly act and bares her fangs, she’s as readable as a cartoon. Van Sant is saying that Suzanne’s surface is all there is to her. But that isn’t enough to sustain a satire.

And yet …. Van Sant does something new here, something he couldn’t have done without the clothesline of media satire to hang it on. Every day, if we can stomach it, we can tune in to Ricki or Sally Jessy and watch the freak show — middle Americans dusting off the skeletons in their closets and exposing them for the cameras. The global village has become a surreal, symbiotic therapy circle, a Moebius strip of disclosure in which we at home take comfort in watching people infinitely more screwed up than we are, and the guests on the shows find redemption in their fifteen minutes of fame, blasting through suffocating anonymity as Rupert Pupkin hungered to do in The King of Comedy. (Rupert has become as vivid an emblem of late-20th-century insanity as Travis Bickle.) Maynard’s novel anticipated the talk-show brouhaha involving guests whose lives were ruined (and, in one case, snuffed out) by their talk-show appearances.

To Die For takes the expected easy shots at Suzanne, whom we don’t buy any more than we buy Ricki or Sally Jessy when they click into compassion mode to prompt a faltering guest. But the odd phenomenon of starstruck gullibility — ordinary people putting themselves in the hands of carny barkers and snake-oil salesmen legitimized by their televised image — is a new subject in movies. To Die For doesn’t let us feel superior to the people we might feel superior to if we saw them sobbing to Ricki about the nasty weatherwoman who led them astray. For that, it gets two cheers from me. For the full three cheers, it would have to be brave enough to refuse to let us feel superior to Suzanne Stone, who is as warped and as trapped by the camera eye as anyone else in the movie.

To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar

September 2, 1995

I’m not sure what to make of the recent mainstreaming of gay culture (as Bob Dole might put it) — whether it’s due to genuine acceptance or, as I suspect, because it’s chic and profitable. I’m all for wiping out prejudice and hatred, but when I see a movie like Philadelphia, which tells us to mourn a dying gay man because he’s practically hetero, I wonder if some of the new gay-themed films aren’t playing by homophobic rules. “Accept us,” the movies seem to say, “because inside we’re just like you.” It’s embarrassing to have to point this out in 1995, but gays are not just like hets inside; aside from the same-sex attraction, there’s usually the lifetime of accumulated hurts and scars which such an identity brings to most gays, and which most heteros can’t begin to understand. Might we not profit more from respecting our differences — between gays and heteros, men and women, blacks and whites — than from insisting on a wishy-washy common ground?

Which brings me to, deep breath, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (whew). Yes, it’s a primer on tolerance, a story about cute ‘n’ harmless drag queens. Yes, in structure it’s kissing cousin to The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (must all these gender-bending movies have such jawbreaking titles?), 1994’s campy celebration of ABBA and outlandish frocks. Yes, the three stars (Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze, and John Leguizamo) are well-known breeders: There’s no way Universal is going to gamble on three actors in drag whose offscreen sexuality is in dispute. Yes, it’s a swish-out-of-water comedy: The trio of divas, en route from New York to L.A. in a ’67 Caddy, break down in a rural backwater and impart lessons of fashion and individuality to the locals. And yes, the movie’s conception of these flamboyantly gay men is bizarrely asexual: Snipes and Swayze are too busy bickering like old maids to get laid, and Leguizamo’s flirtation with a gentle local boy (who assumes Leguizamo is genetically female) is derailed when a local girl falls for the boy. The film is everything that will make half the gay audience grit its teeth (while the other half may be grateful that a $30 million pro-gay Hollywood movie exists in the first place).

The main reason I enjoyed To Wong Foo (if you think I’m typing out that whole title again, you’re tripping) is probably pretty basic. For openers, the stars are funny. Not funny as in “Ha ha, look at the men in dresses.” But when you’re watching Wesley (Drop Zone) Snipes, Patrick (Point Break) Swayze, and John (Carlito’s Way) Leguizamo acting all womanly and frilly, the joke is less that they’re men in drag than that these particular actors, so aggressively alpha-male in other roles, are in drag — and they’re gorgeous to boot. Very quickly, they settle into their characters. Snipes is snippy, Swayze is maternal, and Leguizamo is a hot-blooded Latina eager to prove herself as a “drag princess.” Though Snipes and Swayze have rather unwomanly musculature, all three actors have the physical grace to nail the metamorphosis: Snipes has studied martial arts, Swayze is a lifelong dancer, and Leguizamo has been doing drag for years in his stage shows. And they don’t camp it up — well, yes, they do; it kind of comes with the territory — but they don’t wink at us, letting us know they’re really hetero, or really brave for doing this movie. Leguizamo in particular would’ve fooled me if I hadn’t seen him before; he moves and sounds exactly like a pouty young Latina.

It must be said, though, that To Wong Foo paints an extremely sanitized portrait of drag queens, especially given that these girls come from New York; these are drag queens even Bob Dole could like. (For a spikier and, one assumes, more accurate record, we look to Jennie Livingston’s flavorful 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning.) They don’t curse, do drugs, drink (aside from a bottle of wine while commiserating with the small-town ladies over the perfidies of men) — they don’t even smoke, which must be a first for a drag-queen movie. And, as noted above, they’re very abstractly gay. With its gaudy costumes and lack of sexual tension, To Wong Foo sometimes plays like a ’50s sci-fi flick. One could argue that, stuck in the boonies, the queens wouldn’t have much luck finding playmates; but in Priscilla, the Terence Stamp character (a post-op transsexual) found love with a burly biker guy. Someone is still afraid to show us two men kissing in a major motion picture. Except for Leguizamo’s crush, which of course must defer to the heterosexual girl’s crush, the only love here is sisterly bonding between women and men who look like women. The movie turns into Fried Queen Tomatoes.

Another interesting thing Priscilla did that this movie doesn’t was to give us some sense of what drag queens are like when they’re not “on.” In Priscilla, the queen played by Hugo Weaving was rather reserved and quiet in his civvies, as if saving the full force of his personality for the stage, where he let loose. The queens of To Wong Foo stay en femme all the time, and I thought it might have been funny to see Swayze and Snipes out of drag, perhaps reverting to their previous manly screen personae to fake out a bigoted cop (Chris Penn) who pulls them over. Instead, we get an ugly scene in which Penn, taking Swayze for an uppity “career girl,” feels Swayze up and gets knocked on his ass. After that, the tiresome cop spends every waking moment hunting the “homos,” and the movie keeps cutting back to him sitting in bars and venting his homophobic disgust; I got the creepy feeling that many in the audience were not laughing at him as intended, but with him.

Movies like this and Philadelphia stroke middle-class liberal sensibilities and teach us what we should already know. That there’s still a need for candy-movies like To Wong Foo isn’t really the movie’s fault. It seeks only to entertain, and tangentially to enlighten. For years, blacks had to evolve from servants to noble friends-of-the-hero to complex human beings in the Hollywood movies that showed their faces. Similarly, movie gays have gone from mincing hairdressing fags to (usually) tragic figures beleaguered by homophobia or scarred by AIDS (and of course there’s always the Friendly Gay Neighbor). Major-studio films that can tell gay stories without making a big sociological deal of it may not be too far in the future, which is why this mainstreaming of gay culture is a good thing. Until then, To Wong Foo is fun enough. It’s a glitzy comedy of kindness, which, Bob Dole or no Bob Dole, our wounded pop culture could use a lot more of. But at heart it’s about as queer as a one-dollar bill. For a truly gay mega-budget Hollywood movie, I’m afraid you’re going to have to sit through Batman Forever again.

The Babysitter

September 2, 1995

Guy Ferland’s The Babysitter, at first glance, looks like the sort of “erotic thriller” you usually leave on the shelf — the unrated sizzlers with titles like Sexual Malice or Sensual Obsession or Fatal Nookie. And the appearance of Alicia Silverstone in the lead role further leads you to expect a rehash of The Crush, with Alicia as the damsel in distress rather than the psycho-bitch. Finally, whatever synopsis you might read should kill your interest: Psychological thriller about an innocent babysitter who becomes the focus of men’s dangerous fantasies. Oh, please.

Prepare for a surprise. The Babysitter is a complex chiller with the best witty-sinister fantasy sequences this side of Brian De Palma (only without De Palma’s mocking cartoonishness). Silverstone is the Babysitter (she’s not named until the very end), who’s taking care of a little boy and girl for the night. The kids’ father (J.T. Walsh), who still harbors adolescent fantasies of bagging babes in the back seat and really misses those days, takes one look at Silverstone and quietly goes insane.

“Quietly” is the key: The father goes to a party with his dissatisfied wife (Lee Garlington) and can’t stop daydreaming about coming home to discover the wide-eyed babysitter all sudsy in his bathtub, asking him to soap her back…. Giving himself over to these giddy mind-movies (photographed by Rick Bota in creamy pinks), the always-fascinating J.T. Walsh is deeply funny; he’s like a horny little pudge who can’t wait to be alone so he can gawk at his hidden copy of Playboy. (His pre-pubescent son has a collection of nudie photos, too, and nurtures his own soapy dreams of the babysitter.) Walsh keeps trying to get away from the party, which suits his wife fine, because she’s busy getting drunk and fantasizing about the host.

Meanwhile, the babysitter’s mild-mannered ex-boyfriend (Jeremy London) and his bad-news buddy (Nicky Katt) wander around town, debating whether London should visit the girl and make a move. Katt, who briefly dated her, taunts London with hints about what he’s missing. All the while, their own babysitter fantasies bloom: London’s are tender Blue Lagoon affairs, while Katt’s involve red-light roughness. The boys’ friendship starts off intriguing (they’ve had some falling-out) and then deepens; Guy Ferland lets them talk, get on each other’s nerves and back off, and we feel they share experiences we don’t know about. Nobody in the movie is cardboard: London is more than just a straight-arrow, Katt is more than just a punk, and Walsh is more than just a horndog. Ferland’s joke is that the babysitter is both more and less than what the men are making her out to be in their dream-worlds, and he deliberately doesn’t give her a past, parents, or even a name. She’s an object of fantasy, yet whenever she opens her mouth in real life she says something that explodes the fantasy.

Ferland doesn’t shy away from the ticklish naughtiness of the fantasies. We giggle at the foolishness of J.T. Walsh imagining himself joining Silverstone in the bathtub fully clothed, yet we also recognize that fantasies often are ridiculous. (De Palma understood that, as did Buñuel and David Lynch.) The fantasies seem fine-tuned, perfected in the minds of the men through repetition; they play like authentic masturbation scenarios. And Ferland keeps cutting back to the babysitter, blissfully unaware of all this erotic attention. But then the naughtiness gradually turns nasty, as it’s meant to. Ferland is saying that the objectification essential to male fantasy inevitably leads to dehumanization, and from there to cruelty. The men converge on the house, now intent on playing out their fantasies, and the tone of the movie shifts from erotic to suffocating and, I thought, rather upsetting.

The Babysitter isn’t overly explicit; Silverstone never appears nude. (Ferland slyly interrupts the men’s fantasies before they cross the line into hardcore.) But it does get at something dark and wormy in American masculinity. It uses the horror-movie convention of the vulnerable, virginal babysitter (as seen in Halloween) to illuminate what many men really want, and the picture isn’t pretty. Does Ferland objectify Alicia Silverstone to dramatize her objectification? He has to, I think; apart from denying the men the sex they want, she has little personality. But outside the male fantasies, Ferland doesn’t fetishize Silverstone the way Alan Shapiro did in The Crush, turning her into a lethal Lolita. She’s just an ordinary girl trying to control two unruly kids (who keep jumping on her and tickling her — further unwanted physical attention). In the fantasies, though, when the babysitter is usually giggly or submissive, Silverstone shows some wit. And Ferland directs Silverstone to play two distinct types of fear: the no-means-yes type that the babysitter shows in the men’s later rape fantasies, and the real thing — genuine shock and alarm at these boys-of-all-ages who have lost the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality.

I realize why Ferland shoots the works in the climax — he needs the violence to release the tension that’s been building. But it still feels too movie-ish, an intrusion of fantasy on reality. It’s worth noting, though, that the only ones who get hurt are the men. This, too, feels unreal and contrived but symbolically right. In real life, of course, women are too often raped and killed by men like these, who can’t control their aggressions, their self-disgust expressed as hatred of women. But in the end, the men stand baffled by what their thoughts have led to. “What were you thinking?” the babysitter asks London, who can’t answer. We can, though. The Babysitter gets under your skin and stays there.


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