Archive for January 1997

In Love and War

January 24, 1997

Late in the insipid In Love and War, young Ernest Hemingway sends a letter to his great love Agnes von Kurowsky, a nurse eight years his senior. In the letter, Ernie outlines their blissful future back in America: They’ll get hitched and live together in his dad’s cabin, where she’ll be “making the old place spic-and-span while I write great works.” Gee, what fun. What woman in her right mind could pass that up?

Well, Agnes did. Directed by Richard Attenborough in his boring important-movie mode, In Love and War is the true story of how the 18-year-old Hemingway, wounded during ambulance duty in World War I and hospitalized in Milan, gave his heart to his lovely nurse Agnes, who promptly broke it. After that, poor Ernie went home, according to the movie, and became Papa Hemingway as we know him — the macho, boozing womanizer who fictionalized Agnes as A Farewell to Arms‘ Catherine (one of many two-dimensional Hemingway women), and gave Catherine a painful and lingering death for good measure.

In short, the movie says that Hemingway’s entire work and later life boil down to “Take that, Agnes, you bitch.” It’s a moronically simple summing-up, as movies about writers often are. The great folly of In Love and War is that it doesn’t bring to life the passionate affair whose failure supposedly fueled both Hemingway’s misogyny and his art. The romance is twice described as “a kid’s fling,” and, despite the movie’s attempts to prove otherwise, that’s exactly what it is.

Perhaps no actors could have saved the goofy script. It took three writers to come up with sub-Hemingway drivel like “I can’t stand the thought of you leaving” and “You have to save him! He’s never been with a woman!” — that one got unintended giggles from the audience. But the people behind this alternately remote and corny saga stepped on a landmine when they cast the leads: Sandra Bullock as the fair Agnes, and … Chris O’Donnell as Hemingway. Yes. Let that sink in.

What a wonderfully transparent bit of let’s-pull-in-the-teenage-girls casting. More wonderful still, it fails laughably. Bullock said in interviews that she kept a lid on her familiar bubbly persona to play the repressed Agnes. But she goes so far that she makes Julia Roberts’ Mary Reilly look like Fran Drescher. Bullock’s Agnes comes off as utterly passionless and dull, which makes young Ernie seem even more of a smitten twit for being so stuck on her.

Then there’s Chris O’Donnell. I will cherish my memory of Chris at the end of In Love and War, bearded and bitter, drinking fiercely and trying very hard to be dark and tormented. Such incomparable moments are why I go to the movies. For most of the film, though, he’s so relentlessly Chris that we forget he’s supposed to be Hemingway. Now and then, Ernie scribbles in a notepad. I guess he’s a writer or something? The movie is foolish and pointless, particularly coming after The English Patient — a far richer tale of love and war worthy of Hemingway at his best. In Love and War is more like Hemingway at his worst, which can be very bad indeed.

The Relic

January 10, 1997

the-relicI have a soft spot for movies with credit listings for “Kothoga operators,” so I’m tempted to go easier on The Relic than I probably should. “Kothoga” — which I think is African for “cheesy horror flick” — is the name of The Relic‘s gigantic whatsit of a monster, a mutated stew of parts from a beetle, a gekko, a tiger, and a human being. There are other animals in the mix, but what discriminating viewers need to know is that it rips heads off real good.

The Relic sounds like a classic beer-and-pizza movie — a lowbrow monster mash with high-tech gloss. Regular readers know I’m a pushover for this stuff. So it pains me to confess that, aside from the spectacularly ugly Kothoga (a creation of monster-making genius Stan Winston), the movie isn’t much good. If you’re predisposed to like this movie, you’ve seen all the films it rips off (and rips off without irony, too).

The overly top-heavy plot is just an excuse to set the beast loose on a bunch of stupid people. The Chicago Museum of Natural History has received some crates with exotic bacteria tucked inside. The bacteria mutate into the Kothoga (I love writing that), which goes on a rampage during the museum’s black-tie exhibit of superstition-related artifacts. Many stupid people in tuxedoes and gowns are relieved of their heads.

Tom Sizemore, as the superstitious cop D’Agosta (whose name everybody mispronounces), is set up as the hero, but he doesn’t end up doing much. If you saw him for the first time in The Relic, you’d never know what an intriguing actor he can be — in Natural Born Killers, for instance, or Strange Days. The real hero is Penelope Ann Miller as the evolutionary biologist Margo Green, who figures out a way to defeat the Kothoga. As in her other movies, Miller’s biggest worry is not the monster so much as the tight dress she’s always on the verge of falling out of. Put some clothes on this woman.

The Relic was directed by Peter Hyams, a competent journeyman taking a break from his Van Damme movies. Hyams is good at building dumb tension — knee-jerk suspense you can’t help responding to, even though you know exactly what’s coming and when. Problem is, most of this stuff was perfected in the Alien series and the first Predator, and you can only watch so many decapitations before you start wishing that the Kothoga (or Hyams) were more inventive.

The movie’s problems may originate in the hefty source novel by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. I haven’t read it, but here are some blurbs from the paperback cover: “Jaws takes Manhattan.” “What might happen if a creature from Jurassic Park came to New York City.” (Obviously Hyams relocated the story to the Windy City.) “Part Jaws, part Poseidon Adventure.” See the pattern? If even the book was hyped in this crude Hollywood-pitch language, how could the movie be anything but derivative?

You may wonder why The Relic is set in a prestigious (fictional) museum. Simple, really. If it were set anywhere else, this movie about Kothoga the head-hunting monster just wouldn’t be classy.

Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist

January 2, 1997

Talk about turning a liability into an asset. Kirby Dick’s Sick, which chronicles the last days of cystic fibrosis sufferer and “supermasochist” Bob Flanagan, is one of the most unlikely inspirational films ever made. Flanagan, who died in 1996 at the age of 42, remains the biggest “success story” in the annals of CF, whose carriers usually don’t make it past their teens. Flanagan fought his disease through art and self-scourging — often both at once — and, luckily, found a soulmate, Sheree Rose, who was more than willing to help him do so. Acting as his Mistress, Sheree pushed Bob into ever more humiliating and painful punishments, which, for many years, he adored.

It would be a mistake to peg Flanagan as the freak show he ironically presented himself as. For twelve years he was an entertainer at a cystic fibrosis camp for kids, and we see him strumming a guitar and favoring the giggling kids with a ditty called “Forever Lung” (the disease coats the lungs with thick mucus). The most touching and weirdly heartwarming section of the piece is when a seventeen-year-old CF patient, Sarah Doucette of Toronto, gets to meet Bob through the Make-a-Wish Foundation. We see Bob and Sheree giving Sarah and her mom a tour of Bob’s place, and a year later Sarah comes back and Bob accompanies her to her first nipple piercing. This is very unconventional love and mentoring, but the love is no less deep for that; to this day Sarah chokes up when remembering Bob — and yes, as we see on a featurette on the Lions Gate Sick DVD released in September 2003, Sarah is now 26 and has outlived her own expected life span.¹ We can’t help thinking that Bob’s example had something to do with that.

I consider Bob a great man, the textbook example of personal transfiguration. He turned his sickness into art; he turned his masochism into therapy. There was, understandably, a gap between his sardonic public persona — who constantly joked about his impending death in performance pieces — and his private persona, revealed here as a frightened and despairing man, not so much because he’s going to die as because he’s still alive and feels so physically awful he can no longer do what made his life meaningful. The heartbreaker in the film is the scene where Sheree badgers him about no longer submitting to her. She can’t understand, she says, why he can’t keep up the promise he made to her fifteen years ago. But of course she understands very well. He’s dying, he’s not well enough any more to be the submissive he once was, and the dynamic between them is changing. If he no longer needs her as a Dominatrix, what else is there for her to do except watch him die? If you read callousness in her words, you can very easily read fear and heartbreak in her voice.

Dick unearths some fascinating old childhood footage of Bob, including an appearance on The Steve Allen Show in which we already see both his artistic flair and his determination. We see interviews with Bob’s parents, who lost two of Bob’s sisters to CF and seem to be happy for him that he’s found some way of dealing with it, even if they don’t understand his way. We meet Bob’s gay brother Tim, who still seems to harbor some hostility towards Bob (his siblings who didn’t have CF must have resented the attention Bob got). We see coverage of Bob’s elaborate art show in New York, at which he appeared in a hospital bed as part of the exhibit, then was hoisted upside down by his ankles by Sheree. If you wonder what all those New York art-gallery curiosity-seekers got out of Bob’s displays, it doesn’t matter. Art fulfilled him, and if others didn’t get it, that was their problem.

Many will point to the infamous “Hammer of Love” sequence as the movie’s most excruciating moment (though what always makes me wince is not so much the nail being hammered into Bob’s dick, but the hammer pulling the nail out). But for me the greatest pain comes when, finally, Bob’s hours are numbered and Sheree becomes a whole different person than what we’ve seen. Their whole relationship has been both a defiance and, in some respects, a denial of Bob’s condition; but now it can’t be defied or denied, and it’s a wrenching moment when Bob, in a rare moment of lucidity, sits up in his bed and wheezes “Am I dying?” and Sheree just barely manages to say “Yes.” Her tears come helplessly; she’s losing her soulmate, but at the same time, he’s going to be out of pain soon, and we hear her tell him that it’s okay to go. Their next-to-last collaboration is a series of post-mortem photos taken by Sheree. Their final collaboration was this movie.

¹ Sadly, Doucette passed away in 2016 at age 39.