Archive for August 1990

The Exorcist III

August 17, 1990

There are two major things wrong with The Exorcist III and the way it was marketed (there’s a third, which I’ll get to at the end):

(a) William Peter Blatty’s 1983 book Legion should never have been made into a movie. Blatty adapted it himself, so the blame for that falls on him. Legion is a beautiful read, but it’s essentially a philosophical police procedural with supernatural elements. Not the stuff of cinema.

(b) Having made a movie of Legion, Warner Brothers should never have called it an Exorcist movie. In the novel, the only holdovers from the original Exorcist book and film were rambling Jewish detective William Kinderman (played in the 1973 film by Lee J. Cobb, and played here by George C. Scott), witty Catholic priest Father Joseph Dyer (played in the original by an actual Jesuit priest, and played here by the late, great Ed Flanders), and the undead Father Karras (Jason Miller). But the studio wanted more of, y’know, an Exorcist flick, so Blatty had to go back and reshoot scenes to include another exorcist, Father Morning (phoned in by Nicol Williamson).

The changes didn’t help; Exorcist III was largely ignored by audiences and sneered at by critics — though it has built a cult audience on video in the years since, and has gained a shinier reputation among web critics, some of whom go so far as to insist that it’s better than the original film. I’ll call it a noble failure — not nearly as brutally effective as The Exorcist, and not as enthrallingly mind-bending as Blatty’s only other directorial effort, 1980’s The Ninth Configuration.

I’d read Legion countless times in the seven years before the movie came out — it’s that kind of book — so a lot of the changes Blatty made in the film rubbed me the wrong way. (This from someone who usually bellows “The book is the book, the movie is the movie” whenever some geek whines about minuscule changes made to a movie version of something.) Kinderman’s relationship with his sergeant sidekick Atkins (Grand L. Bush) makes up much of the book’s warming core — the men are deeply fond of each other, Kinderman perhaps seeing Atkins as the son he never had. In the movie, we see virtually nothing of their quirky rapport. An entire fascinating character — the neurologist Amfortas, who experiments with talking to the dead via audiotapes — is discarded, though, bafflingly, the script includes a couple of allusions to the practice (which Blatty reportedly believes in), in a Kinderman dream sequence wherein angels attempt to communicate with the living. (Samuel L. Jackson gets one line — dubbed over by someone else — as a blind angel who complains “The living are deaf.”)

Stripped to its basics, the story is about Kinderman’s pursuit of the Gemini Killer, who died in the electric chair fifteen years ago but now appears to be killing again. Blatty used this as a jumping-off point for a grand philosophical theory of the very meaning and origin of human existence (I won’t spoil it, except to say that the title Legion takes on a deeper significance). The movie mostly loses all the Deep Thought, though we get an occasional, pointless-seeming exchange about Pain or Evil. It seems pointless now because there’s no follow-through (maybe there was before Blatty was told to go back to the editing room).

Damien Karras, it turns out, is the unwilling host body for the spirit of the Gemini Killer (played in his true manifestation by Brad Dourif, in a chained-down spewing-psycho performance that scooped Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter by six months). Kinderman’s trail leads him to various elderly mental patients, which in turn leads to an admittedly exciting (if overblown in comparison with the novel) sequence in which Kinderman races to get home before an old nutcase (Viveca Lindfors), posing as a nurse and carrying gigantic bone shears in her bag, can liberate his daughter’s head from her body.

It’s too bad that Blatty was so hamstrung by the demands of delivering “an Exorcist sequel” (Paul Schrader faced similar trials with his Exorcist movie — he was replaced by Renny Harlin), because he remains a superb director. The problem with Exorcist III — other than the obvious eleventh-hour finale, which feels ridiculously abrupt and borders on the unintentionally hilarious (“Now, Bill! Shoot me now!”) — isn’t in the way it’s crafted. Blatty sets up one by-now-legendary seat-jumper involving the murder of a nurse: I’ve never seen it done that way before (or since, really), and the moment etches itself into the pantheon of great horror scenes. In general, Blatty maintains an eerie, oppressive tone without stooping to linger over carnage (the more hideous crimes are merely talked about, the corpses chastely cloaked in sheets). As he showed in The Ninth Configuration, Blatty is masterful with sound, and he and editor Todd Ramsay borrow William Friedkin’s technique in the original of clipping a scene just before you expect it to end. The film keeps you off balance; it’s strikingly well-made, for a movie that shouldn’t have been made.

Which brings us to the film’s third major problem: George C. Scott. Casting him as the rumpled, benevolent ruminator Kinderman is like casting a Rottweiler as a beagle. Scott begins each scene keyed up too high, and he’s simply too angry and animated to ring any bells as the man so memorably embodied by the late Lee J. Cobb. Everyone else in the large cast — and Blatty certainly corralled an interesting ensemble, ranging from Patrick Ewing to Zohra Lampert to Scott Wilson to frickin’ Fabio — gets interesting bits of business and is allowed to be human. But Scott is inhuman; he’s not remotely credible as a frail old man questioning our purpose in life. His big, splenetic speech near the end — which a lot of people love, but I hate — is not the Kinderman I know from the books; Kinderman would never lapse into saying “I believe in slime and stink, and every crawling, putrid thing, every possible ugliness and corruption!” — give me a break. Did Blatty really write this? In the end, the only thing that can restore order is Kinderman’s trusty pistol. Scott is all too plausible spouting off about “slime and stink” and then plugging the unholy with lead; that’s what finally kills his characterization and the movie.

Mo’ Better Blues

August 3, 1990

This stylish melodrama is structured like a mini-epic. It begins with the protagonist, jazz great Bleek Gilliam (Denzel Washington), as a boy who has to be nagged into finishing his trumpet practice before going out to play; it ends with an echoing scene in which the adult Bleek watches his wife nag their own son into practicing. Is it a smooth transition? Not really. Spike Lee isn’t generally known for the smoothness of his scripts. This one has the same problem as School Daze — it tries to put way too many eggs in one basket. Lee touches on work, professionalism, loyalty, sexuality, gambling, family, career-ending injuries, racism (lightly), the declining black audience for jazz, even gangsters. That’s a lot of ground to cover, so it isn’t surprising that Lee drops the ball all over the place — especially in the last half hour, when, after Bleek undergoes a life-altering crisis, the movie goes thud.

Lee’s filmmaking is as alive as ever, though, and the movie is best when he’s just goofing around. He doesn’t have anyone speak directly to the camera this time (a break from his previous films), but he does something even better: When the two-timing Bleek is in bed with one girlfriend (Cynda Williams) and confuses her with another (Joie Lee), the women’s identities merge, and Bleek just keeps looking from one to the other until he just stares at us, dumbfounded. It’s a good gag, as is the device of Bleek’s manager and childhood buddy Giant (Lee himself), a compulsive gambler, continually showing up with broken fingers from run-ins with local hoods. This meditation on life and art — perhaps, for Lee at that time (before he got married and had kids), a bit autobiographical — is entertaining enough until the closing “Love Supreme” montage, in which Bleek discovers love and finds inner peace; it’s a dud, an eleventh-hour attempt at uplift, and perhaps it feels false because Lee at that point hadn’t yet found those things himself and was working from wishful thinking. Washington, in the first of four movies with Spike, shines in a rare, loose, overtly sexy and romantic role — he should work more with Spike, or at least work less with directors who don’t know how to bring out his best.

Wild at Heart

August 2, 1990

David Lynch’s Wild at Heart isn’t wild at heart — it’s wild everywhere else, particularly the groin. “Heart” isn’t a word you might associate with Lynch, who has made two of the most heartless films in recent memory — Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, which just about dare you to stay in the same room with them. I don’t, by the way, mean “heartless” as an insult. Lynch does have a taste for melodrama — romantic anguish and bliss pushed far beyond what’s ordinarily accepted as literal — but he seldom shows much affection for his characters, or, if he does, it’s aesthetic affection. Lynch puts his people in weird or terrifying situations, and when they respond in a way that satisfies him he leans back and says “Fantastic.”

Wild at Heart is something of a break from Lynch’s usual experimental detachment. He’s not studying his characters so much as presenting them this time. Yet they’re still inarguably Lynchian people, who say oddball things and nurse cornball fantasies. The movie is based on Barry Gifford’s novel, which Lynch probably selected because of its southern-fried road-gothic strangeness (almost all of the film’s dialogue comes straight from Gifford). It’s a gentle, rambling road novel, with two central characters — ex-con Sailor and his hot-to-trot sweetheart Lula — that perhaps Lynch is fond of, in his way. Gifford had the lovers separate at the end, but in the movie they stay together; Lynch has said he couldn’t bear the thought of breaking them up — they’re perfect for each other.

We’ve only just sat down when Sailor (Nicolas Cage) is set upon by a knife-wielding assassin. Sailor pounds on him for a while, then cracks the man’s skull open on the marble floor. That’s Lynch’s way of saying, “This isn’t the kind of dream that lulls you in, like Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks.” And it’s not. If anything, it’s a return to the stink and paranoia of Eraserhead — full of vomit left to dry on motel rugs, splattering brains, body parts suspended in air or carried off by dogs. It’s not a pleasant film by any definition, and it’s not remotely for everyone, but it’s true to Lynch’s vision. He’s doing what he wants. It may not be what most other people want, but that isn’t Lynch’s concern; it never has been.

Lynch doesn’t fiddle much with the novel’s basic plot. He uses it as a springboard for bizarre attractions, as he did with Frank Herbert’s Dune. The whole movie is Sailor and Lula (Laura Dern) on the road, running from the various burnouts and psychopaths that Lula’s gonzo mother Marietta (Diane Ladd) has sent after them. For this reason, Lynch can’t ground the movie; there’s no innocent small town for him to explore. The universe of Wild at Heart is aggressively, unapologetically insane from frame one. But that has its own allure. The movie skitters along, stopping for a car accident here, a bank robbery there. Lynch also tosses in lots of people who aren’t in the book: a stone-faced hit man who has been hired by Lula’s mother to kill Sailor; a big-time gangster named Mr. Reindeer who does business over the phone while sitting on the john; a trio of wackos headed by David Patrick Kelly and Grace Zabriskie (both of Twin Peaks); a befuddled old space cadet (Lynch regular Jack Nance) who talks about his imaginary dog. There’s also a great deal of homage to The Wizard of Oz — Lynch apparently means this to be his R-rated version of L. Frank Baum’s over-the-rainbow world, with its menagerie of creatures and misfits.

The director also gives the Lynch touch to a few characters he imports from Gifford: Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton), Marietta’s lover, who giggles and plays a bit of peekaboo with her; Lula’s cousin Dell (Crispin Glover), seen in flashback, who enjoys putting cockroaches in his underwear; and, worst of all, Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe), an ugly sociopath who nearly rapes Lula in her motel room (the movie comes to a dead stop so we can watch Dafoe, in fake-toothed grotesque closeup, forcing Laura Dern to say “Fuck me” over and over; the camera seems to be swimming in the delirium of sexual violence threatened but never acted on). They’re all here, the whole sick crew.

After a while, the parade of loonies becomes a bit tiresome. And Lynch’s ending is so cornball that I imagine most of this film’s audience, attuned to Lynchian irony, will take it as a joke and snicker at it; but it’s by no means clear that he means it as a joke. The movie is on fire, though; like it or not, it sticks to the ribs of your mind. Everything is there for effect, even the performances. Cage and Dern go way over the top into erotic desperation and doomed romanticism; the supporting cast, to a man (or woman), seem to have been encouraged to outdo the excesses of silent-film actors. There are really no humans here, just actors instructed to deliver lines that have no connection to our reality but are somehow true to the movie’s own frenetic reality.

Wild at Heart, despite winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes (or perhaps because of it), has been almost unanimously denounced by critics, and I think I can see why. The biggest mistake David Lynch ever made was releasing this film after his Twin Peaks series premiered and won the hearts of a thousand journalists looking for a good cover story. There’s been so much Lynch hype that he’s begun to seem like the flavor of the month, the media’s favorite oddball. But he’s their favorite only when he doesn’t shake them up — when he works inside a traditional, not wholly respected medium and brings art and class to it. Such people, I suspect, would rather Lynch made “nice” films like The Elephant Man for the rest of his life. That’s all right, Dave, make your little drama for television, but don’t get too crazy — don’t make us lose sleep, don’t make us lose our lunch.

Despite minor qualms, I don’t find Wild at Heart offensive, as many critics have (Roger Ebert just about wet himself panning the film on his show); but I do find those critics’ stay-in-your-place attitude offensive. Lynch is trying to grow as a filmmaker, to go somewhere he hasn’t gone before, but the critics want him to deliver Twin Peaks over and over. I find that too abhorrent to think about. Pauline Kael once wrote, “If you’re afraid of movies that excite your senses, you’re afraid of movies.” And if you’re afraid of Wild at Heart