Archive for December 1993

Heaven and Earth

December 25, 1993

Throughout his career, Oliver Stone had been pilloried for his mostly insignificant female characters. So in 1993 he offered a double whammy — producing The Joy Luck Club and directing this long, anguished account of the tumultuous life of Le Ly Hayslip, through whose eyes Stone frames the experience of Vietnam one last time (let’s hope). Le Ly, a Vietnamese village girl who endures one horror after another, is beautifully played by Hiep Thi Le in her first acting job. But the narration Stone gives her to read is awfully klutzy; the movie spans several decades and feels absurdly compressed, as if we’re not seeing a life but a series of appalling events that Le Ly can overcome. Since it is based on fact — Stone’s script is taken from Le Ly’s memoirs When Heaven and Earth Changed Places and Child of War, Woman of Peace — it’s callous to dismiss it as an epic women’s weepie, but that’s how it’s structured. Stone can’t resist hyping Le Ly’s pain; the movie becomes an epic tone poem of suffering.

About an hour in, Tommy Lee Jones appears as the fictional composite character Steve Butler, a Marine who marries Le Ly, fathers two of her children, and takes her back to San Diego with him. Jones gives a strikingly vulnerable performance in what is essentially a stereotype straw-man role (the psycho ‘Nam vet), and the San Diego scenes boil down to: Don’t trust Americans and don’t trust men. Stone, who is both, seems to be engaging in a peculiar form of self-laceration, as if he yearned for Le Ly’s indomitable simplicity, and some of the last half is touching. At the same time, you know you’re getting the Oliver Stone distillation of the story, and he makes everything pompous, chaotic, high-pitched — as if Jim Morrison were behind the wheel. He rams the heroine’s agony down your throat instead of letting you feel it for yourself. This is an honorable failure (it was probably the biggest flop of ’93) with the best of intentions, but the material is wrong for Stone, who ends up falling back on his usual brutal tricks. The real Le Ly has a cameo as a jewelry broker.


December 23, 1993

If they gave awards for good intentions alone, Jonathan Demme’s mantle would be full. Philadelphia is the first mainstream Hollywood movie about AIDS, and it carries a formidable burden: It’s not every film that risks alienating both gays and homophobes.Should one preach to the converted, or should one try to win people over? Demme (who is hetero) and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (who is gay) have made Philadelphia with a wide eye towards the homophobes in the house. The movie is a primer on tolerance, and it tries to cover so many bases that it wears itself out dramatically. Yet, despite its general lack of emotional directness, this is still a moving and honest work, a lucid (if not quite impassioned) plea for common decency.

Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks), a rising young lawyer, is closing in on a senior partnership at his prosperous firm. In the first of several dark ironies, a lesion appears on Andrew’s forehead the day he learns of his promotion. Andrew has known for some time that he has AIDS, but his associates (including his boss, played with maximum sleaze by Jason Robards) don’t even know he’s gay. Apparently it hasn’t been an issue. But it becomes one. When Andrew’s condition grows too advanced to conceal, one of his files on an important case suddenly disappears. Though it is eventually recovered, Andrew is fired for “incompetence.”

That Andrew has in fact been fired for being a gay man with AIDS is obvious to everyone except Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), an ambulance-chaser and admitted homophobe. When Andrew taps Joe to represent him in a wrongful-dismissal suit against the firm, Joe flatly tells him he has no case. “What happened to you,” Joe says, “it’s a bitch, but…” At home with his wife, Joe runs through the standard anti-gay litany. But when he spots an ailing Andrew at the library, buried in legal documents and refusing to be talked into “a separate research room,” Joe realizes they have something in common — experience with prejudice. And they begin to build Andrew’s case.

Despite this subject’s contemporary urgency, Philadelphia follows a game plan as old as the written word. Disappointment may set in when you recognize that this isn’t an AIDS movie at all; it’s a brotherhood movie, a semi-Capraesque drama pitting Two Little Guys Against The System. Yet Demme knows he can’t allow himself a Capraesque triumphant climax: Even if Andrew wins his case, he’s still going to die. Demme and Nyswaner play down the importance of the actual court verdict, focusing instead on the audience’s verdict. The filmmakers themselves are like attorneys representing Andrew: they mean to show that their client is a good lawyer and decent human being who deserves to be treated and respected accordingly. Any possible homophobic objections are smoothly overruled by the presence of the nice, presentable, heterosexual Tom Hanks in the role.

By painting Andrew as a virtually flawless man with whom straight audiences can identify because he’s “just like them,” Jonathan Demme undercuts his own message. If Andrew were a jerk and only moderately competent, would his plight then be justified? The movie barely permits Andrew anger or even sadness at his illness or the injustice done to him. At his most passionate, Andrew weeps at a Maria Callas aria and explains to Joe what it means to him. It’s a powerful scene by itself, but it comes out of nowhere; Andrew lacks the outsize personality, gay or straight, that would thrive on the excesses of opera. For most of the movie, he seems more like a Phil Collins fan.

The Maria Callas scene, which dramatizes the transporting force of art, throws a harsh light on the rest of Philadelphia, which derives its power from its subject, not its art. The actors are game, though. Denzel Washington stubbornly (and rightly) refuses to give Joe an overnight awakening; by the end of the movie, you feel that his newfound sense of fairness has changed Joe both as a lawyer and as a man. Antonio Banderas gives a beautiful performance, almost entirely with his eyes, as Andrew’s devoted lover Miguel. (Too bad this couple is more cuddle-bunny than carnal. Banderas, late of Pedro Almodovar’s films, wouldn’t have been shy about kissing a man onscreen.) Tom Hanks does what he can with a big, unwritten role; he works hard to strip any bathos from his performance, even when Andrew collapses in the courtroom. With a little help from the script, Hanks could have drawn on his comic gifts and been great. I kept thinking of Andy Lippincott, another AIDS-stricken lawyer, created by Garry Trudeau for his Doonesbury strip. Lippincott kept himself amused till the end and videotaped himself so he could be “part of the entertainment” at his own memorial service; he’d have been a wonderful, funky character for Hanks to play.

I couldn’t help wanting more from Philadelphia, yet some part of me also wants to applaud it for having been made at all. Given the sweeping goal it sets for itself, it probably doesn’t have room to be more. It does avoid potential thorns: Andrew’s family doesn’t reject him, and Miguel hardly blinks when it’s revealed that Andrew had sex with a stranger in a gay porn theater years ago (when he was already involved with Miguel). A whole movie could be built on either of those issues. Philadelphia uses the courtroom genre — always a useful genre to touch lightly on hot-button topics — to put a human face to AIDS and homosexuality for the hetero audience. It’s easy to say that it doesn’t go far enough. But the regrettable fact is that the many people who didn’t go see Parting Glances or Longtime Companion are more likely to see this film — with its Oscar-winning director, its known-heterosexual leads, and its big-studio push — and to be more affected by its simplistic handling of its subject than they would be by a more complex rendering. I’m willing to excuse the compromises Philadelphia makes if its likely success enables Hollywood to probe the subject of AIDS more deeply and candidly. Consider this a good start, a baby step in the right direction.

Schindler’s List

December 15, 1993

In the past, Steven Spielberg has frightened us with B-movie stuff that we could laugh off: sharks, spiders, raptors. Schindler’s List, his overwhelming movie about the Holocaust, may well be the most frightening movie ever made. Everyone who sees it will take home at least one indelible image of horror. For me, the image is of a Jewish hinge-maker in a labor camp who displeases a Nazi commandant. The Nazi orders the man to make a hinge, timing him by stopwatch. When the hinge is finished, the Nazi remarks that the man has made only a handful of hinges all day. So the hinge-maker is dragged outside to be shot. We’ve been watching Jews killed left and right, randomly, so we cringe in anticipation of another murder — but the Nazi’s gun won’t fire. The scene, which seems to go on forever as the man expects to be shot and the gun keeps misfiring, is agonizing.

Spielberg, the king of candied entertainment, the Hollywood Peter Pan, has finally grown up. Watching Schindler’s List, I had to remind myself it was a Spielberg film: The very words “Spielberg film” have become synonymous with “sweet, escapist, insignificant.” This movie is none of the above. Yet it isn’t a dour lump of suffering, either. In a shocking reversal, a master of cinematic toys has tackled the most hideous subject of the century and emerged with a genuine work of art. Who could have guessed? Some of the thrill of Schindler’s List derives from Spielberg’s shock at himself, his surprise at the level of candor he turns out to be capable of. Except for three small lapses in judgment, the film is a triumph of restraint and intelligence, the definitive Holocaust drama.

The hero of the movie (and of Thomas Keneally’s 1982 historical novel) is a paradox. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a German industrialist and Nazi party member, comes to Krakow in 1939 to capitalize on the developing tragedy. At first, Schindler views the Nazis neutrally: If they can help him, he helps them; one hand washes the other. But he finds that when dealing with Nazis, you might wash their hands but yours come away bloody. With the help of Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley in a striking performance), Schindler the war profiteer sets up a supplies factory, employing Jews as unpaid workers. It’s slave labor, but at least the Jews, as “essential workers” in the war effort, stay clear of the death camps. Stern is quite aware of this, even if Schindler isn’t at first.

Stern, in fact, becomes Schindler’s conscience in a process of awakening that begins during the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto. Sitting mightily on horseback, gazing down at the chaos, Schindler spots a little girl in a red coat (the only bit of color in the black-and-white frame) wandering through the crowd. Spielberg and screenwriter Steven Zaillian don’t hype this wake-up call too much, but the point is clear: Drawn into identification with this lonely, anonymous girl, Schindler sees the Jews as actual, suffering people, not cheap labor. And he launches a conscious, aggressive plan to save as many of them as possible, losing his fortune in the bargain.

Liam Neeson, a robust actor who’s been fascinating in many bad movies as well as good ones, fills out a deliberately hollow role. Spielberg realizes that to overanalyze Schindler’s motives would strip him of his mystique. (Many who knew the actual Schindler never figured him out.) Schindler the philanderer, drinker, gambler, and Nazi associate is uniquely qualified to be Schindler the savior: His Nazi cronies aren’t likely to peg him as a closet Gandhi. Neeson’s slyness in the role also suggests that Schindler loves outfoxing the Nazis for its own sake. After a string of pristine heroes, Spielberg gives us a richer breed of hero — one who can be selfish, hedonistic, even objectionable, but no less heroic. Neeson’s key contribution is his confident charisma, augmented by his bullish physique. His Schindler is a man who knows he can get away with anything.

Not long before seeing Schindler’s List, I attended a screening of the Indiana Jones trilogy at the Wang Center in Boston. Aware that Spielberg’s Nazis in Schindler’s List would be realistic, I paid close attention to how he handled them in the Indy films. They were comic-book skunks, largely objects of ridicule; there was even a gag in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade featuring Hitler himself. I doubt that Spielberg would attempt such a joke now. The Nazis in Schindler’s List are terrifyingly human, people deformed by hatred, who otherwise have recognizable traits — they haven’t landed here from another planet. Spielberg has discovered the banality of evil. These Nazis aren’t lurid, hissable villains; they’re hearty, presentable, fun-loving guys whose idea of recreation is killing Jews. Spielberg stages their obscenities without editorializing — the acts speak for themselves. These are true monsters.

One such monster is Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), a commandant who arrives at the Plaszow labor camp and establishes his authority by executing a forewoman in front of her workers. For amusement, Goeth sits up in his balcony and picks off prisoners with his rifle. (Disturbingly, Spielberg’s camera takes the point of view of Goeth aiming at his victims randomly, in effect forcing us into complicity with genocide for a moment.) Fiennes, a British actor theretofore unknown to Americans, gives a shattering and amazingly layered performance. He understands the true horror of Goeth: not just that the Jews live or die according to his whims (which vary from moment to moment), but that he doesn’t even enjoy it much; he’s not a sadistic caricature — he sees himself as a guy doing a job, who would really rather not have to be here in frigid Plaszow executing Jews, if not for the troublesome fact that they exist. Goeth is appalling, but Fiennes manages to locate his humanity, the glimmers of kindness or tolerance that make him all the more appalling when he chooses to deny them. After Schindler has told a drunken Goeth that real power is when you have every reason to kill someone but don’t, the audience’s relief is enormous when Goeth actually entertains this advice — for a few hours. He’s as frighteningly capricious as a tornado; the concept of mercy bounces off him.

Generally, Spielberg’s direction is strictly meat and potatoes (though sumptuously photographed by Janusz Kaminski), never regressing to his trademark dolly shots or sense-of-wonder angles. The filmmaking is gritty, hand-held, journalistic, and beautifully compact; the movie’s three hours and fifteen minutes feel like fifteen minutes. Spielberg does, however, get a bit fancy — and offensively so — in the editing of a scene in which Goeth brutalizes his servant (Embeth Davidtz). Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn (whose work is otherwise unimpeachable) bounce us between three scenarios: Goeth abusing the woman, two prisoners being married, and Schindler dancing with a woman. Intellectually, the contrast is readable, but it’s distracting, with intrusive transitional cuts. Goeth has kept this woman alive because he feels something for her, but what? Is it love? Does he see her as sanity in the midst of annihilation — does he hate himself for the part of him that is trying to reach out to her, the human part of himself he must then squelch through sadism? If any scene needed to be straightforward, it was this one. Perhaps, though, Spielberg didn’t want to get too deeply into Night Porter territory.

I also didn’t warm to the finale, invented for the movie, in which Schindler breaks down because he feels he could have saved more Jews. Stern reminds him that he did everything he could; it’s as if Spielberg thought we needed reminding. This emotional display comes out of left field (it’s certainly out of character for Schindler as Neeson plays him for most of the film), and is jarring and beside the point; Schindler, surrounded by people who have real reason to despair, has no right to weep. Spielberg does have the tact to pan across the faces of the workers, most of whom are unmoved by Schindler’s tears — they’re worried about finding their families. The emphasis should be on them, not Schindler. And the coda, shot in color, with actual surviving Schindler Jews being led to Schindler’s grave by members of the movie’s cast, verges on self-congratulation. These people come on for a cameo, and we realize we hardly know most of them as individuals. Again, the emphasis here is wrongly on Schindler, on the Jews’ enduring gratitude to the great German. He was a great man, no question, but the title is Schindler’s List, not Schindler.

Still, overall, Spielberg keeps his head and focuses on what matters, and if Schindler is a bit too overwrought at the end, his presence is welcome elsewhere. Schindler is no Indiana Jones, swashbuckling through Krakow and kicking Nazi ass. His weapons are deception and an unerring business instinct. (Only a die-hard capitalist could convince the Nazis that he wants to divert little girls from Auschwitz not because he cares about them, but because their tiny hands are ideal for polishing the insides of shells.) This is the hero as bullshit artist. Spielberg must sense that without Schindler’s snake-oil charm and bullheaded optimism (you just know he’s a man who doesn’t know the meaning of the word “nein”), the film would be too relentlessly horrifying.

Schindler’s scenes give us respite from the hell of the ghetto and the camps. Big-shouldered and shrewd, Schindler can take care of himself while moving among the vipers; we know he’ll take care of his workers, too. Yet the nonstop cruelty in the camps shows us how limited Schindler’s power is next to a random bullet to the head. Fittingly, Spielberg’s final image is of a road paved with Jewish gravestones. Schindler’s List is equal parts rage and hope: a tribute to those who did what they could (Schindler was far from the only Holocaust samaritan), with a howl of anguish at its core. If Spielberg’s reflexes as an entertainer get the best of him near the end, compelling him to hype Schindler as a saint, that doesn’t seriously mute the film’s cumulative impact. Spielberg is a new filmmaker here. Plunging into the darkest chapter of recent history, a subject so nightmarish it defies comprehension, he uses his considerable resources to heighten whatever understanding we could possibly have of the Holocaust, and at God knows what emotional cost. Spielberg has painted his masterpiece with his own blood.

A Dangerous Woman

December 3, 1993

In this elegant, powerful drama based on a Mary McGarry Morris novel, Debra Winger turns in a performance that deserves a place among the great acting work in recent movie history. If only anyone had seen it. Winger is Martha Horgan, shy, antisocial, incapable of lying. We’re led to think this might get her in trouble with her Aunt Frances (Barbara Hershey) — who’s having an affair with a married politician — but the script has other things in mind. Martha falls in love with drunken handyman Colin Mackey (Gabriel Byrne); meanwhile, her frustration at not being taken seriously builds and builds until it erupts in a convulsion of rage. Winger lets her voice go flat and inexpressive, and director Stephen Gyllenhaal wisely has her do most of her acting with her eyes. When Martha slow-dances with Colin and peers over his shoulder, Winger shows us every microscopic flash of hesitation, fear, self-doubt, love, excitement — within the space of a few seconds. Winger was nominated the same year for Shadowlands, but this is the performance that should have been nominated and won. Byrne, for his part, is rocky and not always sympathetic, and Hershey shines once again under Gyllenhaal’s direction. A remarkable, stupidly overlooked film.