Archive for April 1995


April 21, 1995

Surrender to the Void: Crumb (1995 film)“Girls wouldn’t even let me draw them,” recalls Robert Crumb of his early cartooning days. Of course, he can’t resist adding, “All that changed after I got famous.” Crumb, the brilliant and biting documentary by Terry Zwigoff, is a masterpiece of neutral ambiguity. Crumb, who for five decades has been the unwilling godhead of underground cartoonists, uses his art to name and release the demons of modern life. He uglifies most of his subjects, especially himself, so those who know him only from his shrill, bug-eyed self-portraits may be surprised to meet him here as a presentable, soft-spoken family man. He embodies Flaubert’s advice to be dull and bourgeois in one’s life so as to be violent and original in one’s art. But Crumb’s life wasn’t always dull.

By now, Crumb’s mastery is a given; he has more or less retired, but his last major work — his no-nonsense, no-comment adaptation of the Book of Genesis — is notable for the excellence of its draftsmanship and, weirdly, the almost total absence of Crumb himself. For the most part, Crumb is known outside comics circles for a few contributions, accidental or otherwise, to the larger pop culture: his cover for a Janis Joplin album; Fritz the Cat, subject of a Ralph Bakshi animated film that Crumb despised; his “Keep on Truckin’” cartoon, which was stolen and used for a hundred different applications. Crumb speaks for him as an outlaw artist and a suffering if mordant human born out of time. He can’t stand American bombast, especially rock music; he can listen only to obscure folk or blues records.

Zwigoff, a longtime Crumb friend and collaborator, gives proper due to Crumb’s art and all the mixed responses to it. Nobody argues that the art has no worth; again, its worth is a given. The argument is whether Crumb is on the side of the angels or devils with his eyebrow-raising portraits of fearful lust (his Devil Girl) or racist stereotype (Angelfood McSpade). If any thought or impulse crossed his mind, despite being repugnant to society at large, Crumb was going to be honest about it. He had no choice. Partly it was due to his repressed yet deranged upbringing, yet Zwigoff doesn’t do anything so banal as to handwave the wildness of Crumb’s art by excusing it due to his sad childhood. It’s just, This is how he is and who he became.

Crumb introduces Robert’s brothers — Maxon, who meditates on a bed of nails, and Charles, a recluse who lives with their mother in a fog of medication. All three brothers were artists, but only Robert found popular recognition, an outlet that allowed him to connect, while Maxon and Charles withdrew into themselves. Critics who cluck over Robert’s unstable brothers — “There but for the grace of God goes Robert” — miss the point of Crumb. The fickle finger of fame, which Crumb loathes, may have pointed him away from madness and obscurity. Yet we also see Maxon’s and Charles’ work, and it’s far more striking than Robert’s ferocious but relatively rational work; it has the purity of artists isolated from reality.

There’s immense irony in this. Robert escaped, and he’s still miserable: Success has its own agony. We watch him rebuffing a fan who asks for an autograph, or packing up his wife and daughter to move to France because America has become intolerable, or wearily answering the charges of misogyny leveled against his work, and if we listen carefully we may hear Terry Zwigoff saying, There but for the grace of God go Maxon and Charles. Crumb isn’t only about the famous Crumb, and the soul of this odd and mesmerizing film is in its glimpses of the brothers Crumb laughing over shared memories of childhood terrors, seeking solace in gallows humor about their own lives.

Kiss of Death (1995)

April 21, 1995

Hollywood should assign all their remakes of hard-boiled classics to Richard Price. He did right by Night and the City, and his script for this remake of the 1947 noir classic sparkles with malicious street wit. Now that Woody Allen has abdicated the throne, Price is the soul-of-New-York screenwriter. David Caruso, in his first (and only) bid as a movie star, is ex-con Jimmy Kilmartin, coerced by the feds to entrap psychotic car thief Little Junior (a magnetic Nicolas Cage). Director Barbet Schroeder creates a malignant atmosphere of unease, the constant promise of violence (though the most disgusting murder — the killers prepare for it by donning raincoats — occurs off-camera).

Jimmy seems in way over his head, and Caruso (unfairly sneered at for ditching NYPD Blue for this movie) convinces us of Jimmy’s intelligence but also his vulnerability — it’s a solid, subtle performance that mostly got overlooked in favor of the more vivid turns by Cage (“We should get together sometime — talk about life an’ shit”), Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Rapaport, Ving Rhames, and Helen Hunt (who, as Jimmy’s first wife, makes her few screen moments count). But the acclaim belongs to Price, who writes ’em like Hollywood used to make ’em, only with a lot more profanity and splatter.

Burnt by the Sun

April 21, 1995

Burnt by the Sun, which took 1994’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film, has been blurbed as “exquisite,” “lyrical,” and many other nice things. Yet the movie I saw was a queasy blend of ebullience and masochism. Set in Russia in 1936, when the Great Revolution was poised on the brink of tragedy, Nikita Mikhalkov’s film draws parallels between the potential dissolution of a family and the imminent dissolution of society as Russians knew it. The hero, played by Mikhalkov himself, is a revered revolutionary figure who watches his ideals turn to ash. The political struggle he’s devoted to is becoming cruel and paranoid; his beloved wife and daughter are enthralled by the wife’s ex-boyfriend, who returns from government service as a skunky informer.

None of this is uninteresting, but Mikhalkov is too insistent a director, an old-world version of Oliver Stone. (Maybe that’s why his movie won the Oscar instead of the more deserving Eat Drink Man Woman.) The emotions are overbearing and messy; the motifs (a title song, a fireball, recurring menacing images of water) are overbearing and neat. Some critics enjoy Burnt by the Sun precisely because of its bearish obviousness (Mikhalkov’s best-known previous movie, Dark Eyes, was similarly praised), but I found the film bullying in a self-pitying, nostalgic way. (An American film attempting the same excesses would invite airborne tomatoes.) After a while, I began to long for the cool formalism of a Kubrick or a Greenaway; I have an aversion to life-affirming movies that remind me of burly, cologned guys with hearty laughs and firm handshakes.

And I was mildly embarrassed for Mikhalkov, who doesn’t seem to know he has written himself an excruciatingly self-aggrandizing role. This lusty, awe-inspiring hero would be a pain even if he weren’t played by the director: I mean, the man jumps onto a magnificent black stallion and challenges tanks, for Christ’s sake. Mikhalkov’s real-life daughter Nadia, who plays his daughter in the movie, is a charming little actress, but my enjoyment of the father-daughter scenes was marred by my skepticism about Mikhalkov’s motives. Mikhalkov shows off his limitless, effusive adoration of Nadia in this movie the way he did on Oscar night, when he wore her on his shoulder as a sort of family-values epaulet.

Over and over, Burnt by the Sun makes the same unremarkable point: A comfortable, bourgeois way of life is collapsing into frightening chaos, in the name of a revolution that was supposed to make life even more comfortable. The family bickers and plays soccer and dances and bickers some more, either denying or just plain ignorant of the changes looming on the horizon, and it’s all synthetically poignant. Except for the father and daughter, the characters are blurry caricatures of Russian emotionalism and fussiness. That, I think, is why I left the theater wondering why the film hadn’t moved me more than it had. Like many another Oscar winner, Burnt by the Sun tries to knock you flat with a one-two combo of shamelessness and good intentions. The material was promising enough. I longed for a movie that wouldn’t breathe vodka fumes in my face, that would simply back off and give me room to feel something.


April 12, 1995

It would be too easy to call Fun the best movie about murderous teenage girls since Heavenly Creatures — and also inaccurate. Given a brief art-house run in early 1996 (after playing at Sundance), Fun was made in 1993 — around the same time that Peter Jackson was on the set with Kate Winslet, coaching her on how to bash a woman’s head in with a brick. In other words, fans of Jackson’s film owe it to themselves to see this raw, very American take on the same theme.

Fun stars Alicia Witt (later in Cecil B. DeMented and Vanilla Sky) as Bonnie, a hyperactive misfit with flyaway red hair that suggests electricity coming out of her brain, and Renée Humphrey (Mallrats) as Hillary, a brooding poet with a history of sexual abuse by her father. They meet by chance on the side of a highway and, over the course of a day, become instant soulmates. They shoplift, try on makeup, hit the arcade, go door-to-door harassing strangers, and, oh yes, they charm their way into an old woman’s house and stab her to death “for fun.”

The movie alternates between present-day footage of both girls in juvenile detention (shot in gritty hand-held b&w) and flashbacks of the long and fateful day (shot in lush, golden color). In juvie, a frazzled counselor (Leslie Hope) — herself a former delinquent who turned herself around — tries to reach the girls, while a slick magazine writer (William R. Moses) interviews them for a hard-hitting article he plans to publish. Of the two adults — the woman who’s been there and the guy who’s exploiting them — the girls trust the reporter more, one of the movie’s sly twists. The counselor has too much contempt for the girls (and for the flashes of her former self she sees in them) to reach them, while the reporter offers to pull strings so the girls can see each other again.

The actresses shared a Sundance Jury Recognition award, well-deserved. Witt’s nonstop chatter and spastic movements take some getting used to — my heart sank at first: “Oh, no, it’s a Shine performance.” But after a few scenes you realize that Bonnie is actually a bright, hyper-verbal girl whose intelligence has gotten mired in her emotional wreckage. As Witt shows us how lonely, deluded and needy Bonnie really is — she’s a liar-fantasist who craves attention — her performance becomes deeply moving. Unlike Geoffrey Rush’s Oscar-begging turn in Shine, there’s nothing remotely huggable or life-affirming in Witt’s portrait.

Humphrey has the straighter and, in some ways, harder role — she underplays and holds her own with the flamboyant Witt. She gives her most painful lines a casual verbal shrug — talking about her father’s rape of her as if it happened to someone else on TV — that breaks your heart a little, because that’s pretty much how numb girls like Hillary do talk. And she’s chilling when Hillary talks to the counselor about the murder: “My mom gets these letters saying I’m a monster, and I don’t know, maybe I am. ‘Cause, man, we were like werewolves.”

Fun was directed by Rafal Zielinski, a Canadian whose previous claim to fame was cheezoid teen sex comedies of the ’80s, like Screwballs, Loose Screws, and (in a daring departure from the screw motif) Valet Girls. It’s safe to say Fun represents a quantum leap in maturity and filmmaking for him, on a par with Carl Franklin’s leap from Full Fathom Five to One False Move. The transitions from past to present are deftly handled; the murder is one of the most upsetting things I’ve ever seen in a film, and I’ve seen it all. I was reminded of the home-invasion scenes in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Man Bites Dog, and, yes, A Clockwork Orange. And as a comment on the cycle of abuse and the effect of pop culture on warped psyches, it kicks the shit out of Natural Born Killers.

The movie isn’t perfect; as I said, it’s raw. The back-and-forth of the dialogue is often too rapid to be realistic (as was also the case in Clerks) — maybe out of necessity, because Fun was shot in just eight days. And Zielinski tries one idea that doesn’t quite work: a speeded-up montage of the girls’ pre-murder activities. The sequence begins well, playing like an ’80s teen flick from the planet of dread, but it goes on too long. But these are minor flaws. I popped the video into the VCR at 11 pm, planning to watch a little before bed and catch the rest in the morning; it woke me up and kept me up, feeling as if I’d been drop-kicked in the stomach. Fun doesn’t deliver on its title. It delivers something else.