Archive for June 1998

Out of Sight

June 26, 1998

outofsight2Out of Sight won’t cause as much fuss as Pulp Fiction did, but in its own relaxed and playful way it’s just as entertaining. You can see it at the end of a rough day and come out refreshed; it’s like driving a new air-conditioned car on a muggy day — it’s a smooth, cool ride in the midst of summer-movie haze. The movie is about crime and attitude, language and losers who think they can scam their way into the winners’ circle. In short, it’s an Elmore Leonard story, and this is by far the best Leonard adaptation so far, maybe because it doesn’t try so hard.

The movie begins by introducing Jack Foley (George Clooney), who looks like a presentable businessman except for the tie he’s just torn off himself and flung onto the street. He strolls into a bank and carries out a nonviolent heist with suave confidence — and that’s the movie’s tone, too. Jack isn’t the hero, though — he’s a typical Leonard sap, who harbors the illusion of a lazy life of crime. The true hero is Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez), a federal marshal who dates a married FBI guy (an amusing surprise cameo here by an actor reprising his role from another Leonard movie) and seems to want more from life than doing her job competently. When Jack escapes from prison and winds up in a car trunk with Karen, it’s the Elmore Leonard version of meet-cute; they bond by riffing on movies. (Quentin Tarantino, who adapted Leonard in Jackie Brown, owes more to him than to anyone else.)

Until now, George Clooney’s most memorable roles outside E/R have been Seth Gecko and Sparky the gay dog; here, he proves what his performance in From Dusk Till Dawn hinted at — that, given a meaty character and sharp dialogue, he can project the effortless grace of a true movie star. His Jack Foley, who robs banks because he “isn’t a 9-to-5 guy,” is a habitual criminal but not a hardened one. He can take care of himself, but he’s not a violent man — he doesn’t even fire a gun until near the end of the film. That Jack escapes being a thief-with-a-heart-of-gold is due equally to Leonard and to Clooney, who enjoys playing Jack’s growing, ticklish attraction to Karen. He understands the giddy absurdity of it: A bank robber falling for a U.S. marshal makes so little sense that it makes perfect sense.

Jennifer Lopez is working on the same level, and she, too, transcends being the huntress-who-falls-for-her-prey. What struck me about Lopez here is that she hardly moves a muscle; Karen doesn’t believe in wasted energy. (Of course, Lopez plays more than a few scenes in a tight leather coat, which prohibits movement.) Like Pam Grier in Jackie Brown, Lopez sits and takes the measure of the foolish men surrounding her; she lets them make a move, and then she strikes. She’s never better than when she’s rebuffing a succession of drunk ad executives at a Detroit hotel bar; when Jack finally sits down across from her, it’s as if to show the other men what it takes to win her — brains, for starters.

Out of Sight was directed by Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies, and videotape), whose work here surprised me as much as Curtis Hanson’s work in L.A. Confidential. Like Hanson, Soderbergh hadn’t attempted a crime drama before, but the genre turns out to be a natural and comfortable fit. Working with a faithful script by Scott Frank (who also adapted Leonard’s Get Shorty), Soderbergh loosens up and gets a jazzy rhythm going, with the help of cinematographer Elliot Davis (whose camerawork is laid-back and hand-held) and composer David Holmes, whose ’70s-flavored score is so cool I stopped on the way home to buy the album. (And a fine one it is — loaded with great dialogue from the movie and primo music-to-chill-out-to, it’s on its third spin on my player as we speak. It poses strong competition to the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas CD.)

Soderbergh seems thrilled to be working with such a rich supporting cast, too, and performers like Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Steve Zahn (who’s hilarious) and Albert Brooks do some of the best work they’ve done in movies. Out of Sight makes it all look so easy: adapt a terrific novelist faithfully, get a solid director, hire a strong ensemble cast, and have fun with it. If only more works of entertainment were made, like this one, by people who know what they’re doing! But apparently it isn’t that easy, and so a movie like Out of Sight stands among routine Hollywood summer fare the way Karen Sisco stands among the deluded saps on both sides of her profession — an oasis of intelligence in a desert of dummies.

Art Vs. Entertainment

June 20, 1998

“No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved.”
– Oscar Wilde, to whom this section is humbly dedicated

It began when I started wondering what I want when I go to a movie, read a book, slap on a CD, etc. Do I want art, or do I want entertainment? Obviously a good deal depends on context and packaging: one doesn’t, unless one is stupid, go to Godzilla for art, nor does one go to The Ice Storm for a popcorn-munching wacky evening. Beyond that, though, what makes something succeed or fail as art or entertainment? Obviously an infinite number of subjective factors…which is why I plan to be an idiot and come up with a bunch of guidelines and generalities that I will shamelessly pass off as the truth, when in fact they are only the truth of what’s in one person’s head — mine — at this specific moment in world history.

Anyway, what began as a regular bite-sized Tirade took on a life of its own and mushroomed, or metastasized (depending on your view), into a whole other thing.

You may have your own guidelines. That’s great. I’d love to hear them. I’m interested in your take on art vs. entertainment. I’m not interested in your take on my take. Don’t react — create. Get in the spirit of the thing. Don’t say “There are no guidelines.” That’s a cop-out, and besides it’s no fun. Also, everything I say about art and entertainment is movie-oriented, though I hope much of it can be adapted to other media as well.

I. art vs. entertainment
“A truth ceases to be true when more than one person believes in it.”
– Oscar Wilde

My favorite oppositional quote about it comes from David Cronenberg: “Entertainment wants to give you what you want. Art wants to give you what you don’t know you want.” To continue and riff in that vein, I offer the following guidelines, to be amplified throughout this section (and perhaps even contradicted — hey, I’m makin’ this up as I go)….

Entertainment is part of an evening — mini-golf, pizza, a movie, ice cream. Art is the evening — you generally have to make plans to see an art movie, and then you find somewhere to sit and discuss it afterward.

Entertainment is terrified of losing you, and is willing to change itself to be more to your taste. Art doesn’t give a fuck whether it loses you — if you’re lost, that’s your problem.

Entertainment condescends to what it perceives as your level. Art assumes you’re at a high level and wants to take you higher — it conascends.

Entertainment wants to make you think you’re thinking, but actually steers you toward its chosen conclusion. Art actually does make you think, and allows you to arrive at your own highly subjective conclusion.

Entertainment generally isn’t personal or obsessive or visionary. Art often is.

Good entertainment often is not artistic. Good art often is entertaining.

If entertainment is unappealing, offensive, and hell to sit through, you just wasted your ticket money. If art is unappealing, offensive, and hell to sit through…maybe you should see it again.

II. what is art?
“It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”
– Oscar Wilde

The dictionary is no help whatsoever on this word: “An aesthetically pleasing and meaningful arrangement of elements, as words, sounds, colors, shapes, etc.” Or this: “Any system of rules and principles that facilitates skilled human accomplishment.” They might as well just say “things that don’t suck.” If art is so nebulous and subjective as to resist definition, you may ask, why bother trying to define it? Well, that’s a fine attitude. Why bother doing anything? Because we believe it’s worth doing. Or at least trying to do.

So what is this thing called art? It’s easy to define it by what it isn’t (i.e., entertainment … though art can be entertaining), but let’s try to define it by what it is. Art, to me, is a work that speaks to those who are willing to rise to it; a work that speaks to all genders, races, sexualities, religions, etc., at any time and in any place, and yet is not blandly homogenized — i.e., it isn’t that way by cowardly design, intended to reach a mass audience. It may in fact not reach an audience until decades or even centuries later.

Art is, generally, also selfish. If it reaches you, it does so almost in spite of itself. Art is about expressing one’s inner state, one’s personal vision of the world. You may respond to it because you share the artist’s feelings and vision; you may not share those things, but respond to the purity of the vision, the forceful and vivid way it’s expressed. Or it may leave you utterly cold. In which case, who’s to blame, you or the artist? Neither. There’s the artist, and here’s you, and the two just don’t intersect. It happens.

Art also tends to subscribe to “less is more.” Art films in particular are often plotless. When a film is too plotty, too narratively complicated as opposed to humanly complex, you can feel that it isn’t art. (There are exceptions. BTW, to save space, can we just assume there are exceptions to everything, so I don’t have to keep saying it?) In his book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud shows us a basic icon of a cartoon face, and says that the less detailed and specific it is, the more we project onto it and see ourselves in it. A circle with two dots and a dash for a face could represent you. A red-haired woman in her 30s with a pierced nostril and eyes of two different colors might not represent you. (Or she might, but she might not represent the person sitting next to you.) If a movie features such a character, it’s that much harder to get you to hook into her instead of seeing her as Other or just a quirky person. Skillful writing would help in that regard, as would skillful acting.

Art is ambitious and tries to suggest where we are now, or rather, where we always have been and always will be — the rest is just details. At the same time, art does not try to be art. Art that tries to be art is failed art. Art is art without really trying to be. Many artists can wax quite eloquent about why they were moved to do their art, but only after the fact. During the time they’re doing it, the process is highly instinctive, unconscious, subverbal. It’s only afterward that meaning and interpretation are imposed onto the work by its admirers (or by the artists themselves).

The best art — and here, in the realm of film, I think of masterpieces like Citizen Kane, Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange, The Seventh Seal, too many others to count — often is not comforting. It can be disturbing, even depressing or sickening. It doesn’t have to be “entertaining,” in the sense that we generally perceive the word; more precise adjectives might be “compelling,” “engrossing,” perhaps even “shocking,” but not necessarily a popcorn flick, not a movie you’d take home to meet your mom. But it still leaves you satisfied, the same basic feeling entertainment gives you. Art gives you what you didn’t know you wanted, scratches an itch you didn’t know you had, and that’s part of the thrill of art — making new connections, discovering new corners of yourself.

Finally, it helps if we genuinely enjoy the art; we are then inclined to do all the interpretive work, which is really part of the art — the admirer brings something of him/herself to the art and completes it. And this is where it gets really subjective. One person’s art is another person’s pretentious shit. And if you think, say, Cronenberg’s Crash is pretentious shit, you’re likely to laugh at my fervent theories about its larger significance. And I can turn around and laugh at your passionate defense of what you consider art and I consider shit. And once we’re all done laughing at each other and ripping one another’s opinions to shreds, the art is still there, untouched, unaffected by our arguments pro or con. It will outlive us; it will outlive its creator. As it should. People come and go, as do trends and theories about art, but art lives forever.

III. what is entertainment?
“Yes, the public is wonderfully tolerant. It forgives everything except genius.”
– Oscar Wilde

I looked this one up in the dictionary and it said, quote, “Something that entertains, you dumb motherfucker.” My dictionary has an attitude problem.

You’d think an essay about entertainment couldn’t go any further than that, but our concept of what is entertaining is as subjective as our concept of what art is. Many people found Independence Day entertaining. I did not. Many critics were not entertained by Starship Troopers. I was — very much. Whether we’re experiencing art or entertainment, our receptive process functions in a similar way, though on different levels. Either way, we are looking to be transported. It’s wrong to say in entertainment’s defense that it’s “just escapism.” Entertainment that fails to take you out of yourself — that leaves you sort of sitting there feeling ripped off and wishing you’d waited for video — fails as entertainment, and therefore cannot properly be said to be escapism.

Perhaps one wildly generalized difference between art and entertainment is that the latter takes you out of yourself and into another world, whereas the former takes you deeper into yourself, where you and the artist co-create an inner world. Entertainment is mostly about mass appeal and plays on the moods and prejudices of the moment. It is generally unreflective. It is a straight narrative arrow, a good story well told. (Big exception: Pulp Fiction, which is actually three straight narrative arrows intersecting.)

There’s nothing in the world wrong with great entertainment. The best entertainment — my picks off the top of my head would be Raiders of the Lost Ark, much of Hitchcock (except Vertigo, which I consider his one film that succeeds as art; dazzling as his other classics are, they’re entertainment), Treasure of Sierra Madre, Clerks, dozens upon dozens of others — gets your blood going, excites you on a motor level, makes you laugh your ass off, whatever. Entertainment tends to be visceral, art is more often cerebral. You can feel an adrenaline rush when a great action sequence in a Spielberg film is working; when a Woody Allen comedy or South Park episode reduces you to helpless, breathless, almost soundless laughter, the response is equally physical. Entertainment does it to your body and sometimes to your heart; art does it to your mind and sometimes to your soul.

Entertainment is more about emotion, and though art is often about expressing emotional states, it often doesn’t allow itself access to populist strategies of entertainment, like catharsis or tearjerking. When entertainment fails in that regard — when you’re supposed to cry but instead sit there dry; when you’re supposed to be knocked through the back wall but instead wait for a scene with a lot of light so you can read your watch — then it really fails, big time. Ask anyone who saw Godzilla. How can entertainment fail? The same way that art can fail — you’ve seen it before, it doesn’t rock your world or your boat, it doesn’t do anything for you or to you, it just kinda sits there.

But when it works, it can take you for a ride that art, for all its intensity and complexity, often can’t. It can dazzle you, make you feel like a kid again. And that’s one thing art doesn’t do. Art usually assumes you’re mature, and treats you accordingly. Entertainment can be refreshing in its sheer happy atavism; you willingly regress. Or at least you do if it’s done right. If entertainment fails, you resent being treated like a dumb kid. When it works, though, you are a kid again and you don’t resent anything. Even entertainment for adults, like an Albert Brooks film or a John Woo action classic, can make you respond as an adult the way entertainment you saw as a kid made you laugh or thrilled you. Entertainment can give you what you want. Nothing to sneeze at.

IV. okay, so which is better?
“We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.”
– Oscar Wilde

It used to be that the popcorn flicks were reserved for the warmer months — from May to early September, when the kids were out of school and in the plexes. Not any more. In Hollywood, summer is now year-round, and hardly a week goes by without a moronic comedy or a moronic action film or a moronic thriller. Consider that two of the first movies of 1998 were Firestorm and Hard Rain — action no-brainers that the studios correctly guessed wouldn’t survive the tougher summer competition (and barely survived their January release — Hard Rain flopped despite co-starring Minnie Driver, hot off of Good Will Hunting and sloshing around in wet, clinging clothes).

So entertainment, or feeble attempts thereof, now dominates American theaters as never before — while true art movies founder. I don’t really understand why a great film like The Sweet Hereafter, which is not that difficult or artsy, failed to find a larger audience in America. In light of all this, it’s tempting to elevate art above entertainment purely on elitist grounds, to root for the underdog against the corporate monolith. But I’ve done that before, and I’d like to take a different approach.

Entertainment is not easy to do. A seamless, beautifully crafted, consistently engaging mainstream American movie requires formidable skill. If it were easy to do, we’d be getting great entertainment every week. The fact is, we aren’t. Most attempts at mass-appeal entertainment end up being more frustrating and hard to sit through than the most stubbornly interiorized art film. And art isn’t easy either — there’s certainly a lot of bad art out there, though not as much bad art as bad entertainment, if only because the studio money is always there for bad entertainment, whereas less commercial projects have to appeal to at least a certain number of investors or producers if they’re to be made at all.

Yet I prefer failed art to failed entertainment, and sometimes I even prefer failed art to good entertainment. Your average piece of good entertainment is competent, moving, perhaps intelligent. In other words, it’s doing what it’s supposed to do, considering you peeled off seven fucking dollars for the thing. Failed art, to me, is more valuable because at least it took a risk. Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, James Mangold’s Heavy, Larry Clark’s Kids — these are several examples in recent years of art films I didn’t care for, but I’m still glad they were made — I like to see the attempt. Godzilla, on the other hand, I can’t say I’m glad that was made. Or Six Days, Seven Nights. Or the X-Files movie.

I’d rather see a movie that aims high and misses than a movie that aims low and misses. I have a kind of bipolar taste in movies anyway — I love movies that aim high and hit, like Schindler’s List, and I love movies that aim low and hit, like Starship Troopers. I don’t, however, have much use for movies that aim right in the bland middle and hit, like The Truman Show, a clever piece of entertainment that many people are praising as art. The Truman Show is a textbook example of entertainment that makes you think you’re thinking. It doesn’t make you actually think, unless you haven’t seen any of the movies and TV shows (like Twilight Zone) that handled the same themes before, and better. It comes on like art in entertainment’s clothing, but beneath the inner layer of art you find a layer of reassuring themes found in populist entertainment. Right now it looks to be the year’s first Oscar contender. See what I mean?

If art can be entertaining, can entertainment also be art? Can it do what it does so brilliantly that it transcends itself? Yes, but rarely. De Palma has done it, in such films as Blow Out and Casualties of War. Spielberg has done it — some of the moments in the Indiana Jones trilogy are pure cinema, driven by an obsessive momentum very close to art. That’s also true of Sergio Leone, John Woo, Luc Besson. Somehow the title “entertainment” doesn’t fit such movies as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or Hard Boiled — it seems diminishing.

Indeed, some rare movies seem not to fit comfortably into the categories of art or entertainment. They occupy a realm between. I think of L.A. Confidential, which, as both book and movie, is hard-driving pulp with the obsessive complexity of art. A film like L.A. Confidential resists either-or logic — it’s its own thing. It’s neither. It’s both. Does it contradict itself? Very well, then, it contradicts itself. It is large, it contains multitudes. The term “middlebrow” was invented for work that cannot be classified as either highbrow or lowbrow, but it’s a pejorative term — all three terms are pejorative, actually — and doesn’t allow for the kaleidoscope of pleasures that a successful blend of art and entertainment can offer.

For me, the premier artist/entertainer is not any of my three filmmaking gods — Kubrick, Lynch, or Cronenberg, artists who don’t seem all that interested in entertaining anyone but themselves and fans like me. No, the guy I’m thinking of is Scorsese, who grew up on unapologetic pulp entertainment, swam around in the art of Fellini and Bergman and Godard in film school, and has managed, in his best work, to combine the best of both worlds — the lurid propulsiveness of pulp and the emotional/ psychological complexity of art. It’s there in movies like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Mean Streets, and GoodFellas — though GoodFellas is more entertainment than art, and is not his best film, I don’t think (I’m ready for the shitstorm of hostile e-mail on that one).

Scorsese may help me make a final point, using two of his movies that illustrate the difference between art and entertainment — two movies that both star Robert De Niro as an unhinged stalker, and which I hated at first viewing. The King of Comedy is an airless and profoundly uncomfortable black comedy that left me absolutely cold. Then a few years later, I watched it again in preparation for a college paper on Scorsese, and it had somehow become a great film, an unsung masterpiece. Well, of course, the movie hadn’t changed — I had changed. I was ready for it, ready to accept it. The second movie was Cape Fear, which completely put me off when I saw it in the theater. Too in-your-face (literally — I’ve never seen so many invasive close-ups in one movie), too violent (and I have a sky-high tolerance for movie brutality), too loud, too everything. A few years later, after preparing by reading J. Hoberman’s appreciative review, I gave Cape Fear a second try on video. I hated it then, too.

The lesson? For me, it’s this: If a work of art upsets you, bores you, or just generally puts you off to the point where you never want to see it again … wait a while and see it again. It may surprise you. And if a piece of entertainment has the same bad effects on you … in all likelihood, it ain’t gonna improve with age. It’s gonna remain a piece of unentertaining shit.

The X-Files: Fight the Future

June 19, 1998

Early in The X-Files: Fight the Future, Agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) is getting drunk in a bar and rambling about his life to a bartender. “I’m a disgrace to my superiors and an embarrassment to my peers,” he mumbles. “They call me Spooky.” Nobody will call this movie “spooky,” as hotly-awaited and incessantly-hyped as it’s been. Indeed, most of it is pedestrian and boring, with the kind of murky script and uninspired “suspense” sequences that wouldn’t have been enough to get this movie made if it didn’t come with the X-Files label on it.

The truth isn’t out there, it’s in here in this review: The movie is a dud. Having seen perhaps ten episodes of the TV series since its 1993 premiere, I went into the movie with an open mind — hoping to be converted, perhaps, or at the very least thrilled or entertained. I left my Scully skepticism at the door and aspired to be more of a Mulder — I wanted to believe. But the movie, written by series creator/guru Chris Carter and directed by series veteran Rob Bowman, displays all the insecurity associated with the conscious birth of a movie franchise. Almost twenty years ago, Star Trek: The Motion Picture suffered the same jitters. It couldn’t decide whether to please Trekkies or convert new ones. It ended up failing both ways.

The X-Files smells like another such failure. If Chris Carter plans to drift away from television and embark on a movie series, he needs better scripts — preferably written by someone other than himself — and he needs to give the whole conspiracy thing a rest. In this movie, Mulder and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) seem so helpless in the face of this far-reaching conspiracy (I couldn’t begin to tell you what it’s about — something to do with aliens and “black oil”) that they hardly register as heroes. Why hasn’t the government killed these two by now? Well, in this movie they do so little that the government can afford to let them live.

The charm of the TV show (at least in the better episodes I’ve seen) is its intimacy, its bringing weirdness right into your living room. And it wasn’t the alien-conspiracy story arc that won the hearts and minds of X-philes, it was off-the-wall episodes like “Squeeze” and anything written by Darin Morgan (who should be tapped to write the next X-Files movie, if there is one). The movie comes on strong — wide screen, big boring music by series composer Mark Snow (trying way too hard to be John Williams) — and goes out of its way to convince you that you’re not watching a glorified two-hour TV episode. But that is exactly what you’re watching.

Any synopsis I could attempt is doomed to failure, because (A) I’m not supposed to give away the plot and (B) there isn’t a plot to give away. I’m sorry, a series of scenes showing shadowy figures plotting is not the same as a plot. A series of scenes showing Mulder and Scully in a variety of remote locations — that isn’t a plot, either. So what’s left? Certainly not excitement or, God knows, scariness. I never worried about Mulder or Scully; I knew Dave and Gillian have signed on for another season. I was more worried about Martin Landau, as an informer who talks to Mulder; such informers have as much life expectancy as red-shirted crew members on Star Trek. In all, this is the most stubbornly incomprehensible big movie since Mission: Impossible — which was a huge hit, as this movie might also be; the American audience seems to care less and less about stories, actual narratives that can be followed and enjoyed (remember those?).

I’m not a fan of the show, but, having seen some of the better episodes, I can understand its appeal. At its best, the show is dark and techno-gothic and witty. Except for some lame jokes (in a self-conscious attempt to lighten up the proceedings for newcomers), the movie offers no wit whatsoever. It’s stuffed plump with its own major-motion-picture importance, but it feels like a substandard TV episode. Chris Carter truly has become the Gene Roddenberry of the ’90s — he’s begun to take his creation, and himself, so seriously that he’s forgotten the goofiness and quirkiness (and genuine spookiness) that made his show a hit in the first place. The X-Files: Fight the Future is one big, vaguely ominous blur, in which nothing really seems to be at stake except Chris Carter’s future as a movie creator — a future that moviegoers should fight. 2

Six Days, Seven Nights

June 12, 1998

sixdaysAh, the busy urban woman — all she needs is a rugged manly man to set her straight. So we were told by The Horse Whisperer, and so we are told again by Six Days Seven Nights, the latest bland throwback pretending it isn’t one. Here, the overworked woman is Anne Heche, who gives the movie a lot more wit and spark than it deserves, and is rewarded by being put through the standard simplify-your-life drill. You know, lots of women work at magazines and supervise photo shoots. They can’t all be yearning for the Marlboro Man to Calgon them away from their lives.

As the movie opens, Heche’s Robin Monroe (half sidekick, half blonde bombshell?) is involved with an unabashedly romantic guy who has the misfortune to be played by David Schwimmer. They fly to a vacation paradise, courtesy of gruff pilot Quinn Harris (Harrison Ford), and as soon as Robin meets Quinn you know it’s all over for Schwimmer; he might as well just go home and sit out the rest of the movie. Which he practically does, anyway. A business emergency forces Robin to fly over to Tahiti in the middle of her vacation, she pays Quinn $700 to get her there, and a storm knocks the plane down onto some remote island en route.

The fact that I was so conscious of the script’s mechanics — how conveniently it sets up the romance between Robin and Quinn — told me it wasn’t working. Six Days Seven Nights is reasonably painless for a while, because Heche and Ford have an off-center rapport; she gets Ford to loosen up, and I chuckled at him a few times. Still, all I responded to was the actors having fun on the set. I never bought the growing love between the two, because they’re essentially pale copies of Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in one of the main templates for this sort of opposites-attract comedy, The African Queen. Ford, if anything, is a little too hearty here. When he talks about a lost love, his words have no weight. And he overplays his drunk scene (which he didn’t do in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where he seemed to have more depth and experience at 38 than he does here at 55).

About halfway through, the movie goes to Hollywood hell. Director Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters) and rookie screenwriter Michael Browning come up with a band of pirates, with such great iconic character actors as Temuera Morrison (a long way from Once Were Warriors) and Danny Trejo among the villains trying to kill Quinn and Robin. The pirates add nothing to the plot; they’re there to keep it going, but they just bring it to a halt. Meanwhile, Schwimmer sits around at the vacation paradise and somehow catches the eye of Quinn’s ripe young girlfriend (the cheerfully one-note Jacqueline Obradors) — a surpassingly synthetic plot device meant to grease the wheels for guilt-free infidelity all around.

Ivan Reitman has never been an artist, but at least when he first came to Hollywood his comedies had a scruffy charm; movies like Meatballs, Stripes and Ghostbusters now seem in retrospect to owe much of their appeal to Bill Murray. Reitman now makes Hollywood entertainment that is perfectly handsome (cinematographer Michael Chapman does some fine, burnished work here) and perfectly banal (Randy Edelman’s score is like a glaze of generic-comedy music shellac over everything). The question of whether audiences will accept Anne Heche as a hetero partner for Harrison Ford turns out to be irrelevant. The question is really whether audiences will accept this same old plastic stuff again. I’d guess they won’t. I hope not, anyway.

The Truman Show

June 5, 1998

The-Truman-Show-jim-carrey-141894_450_265Why do millions of people watch the happy-go-lucky and rather routine daily activities of Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey)? In The Truman Show, an intelligent, sometimes powerful, but ultimately disappointing fable, people sit glued to their TVs 24 hours a day, watching Truman move cheerfully through his sunshiny hometown Seahaven on his way to work. Some of the viewers, we’re told, find his humdrum life soothing — he’s living the ideal, conflict-free life. Others, I imagine, are waiting for the moment when he discovers what everyone else in the world knows — that he’s living inside a perpetual TV show, “on the air unaware.”

The Truman Show, directed by Peter Weir (Dead Poets Society) from a script by Andrew Niccol (who wrote and directed the superior Gattaca last year), takes a rather ugly view of American voyeurism. There they are — there we are — staring at this poor bastard going through his paces. The movie is a metaphor for any number of media evils (it has its spiritual side, too), but it only occasionally probes what it might actually be like to find out that your entire life has been faked — or what it’s like to be one of those actors hired to play Truman’s wife or best friend. Weir and Niccol haven’t really imagined or gotten inside their characters. The film is a skilled and elegant blank (it is significant, if nothing else, as the first and very likely last Jim Carrey movie scored by Philip Glass and Burkhard Dallwitz), and it doesn’t end up saying much of anything.

Jim Carrey tries hard — his trying hard registers as conscious restraint, trying not to be wacky — and his performance isn’t bad, but it isn’t entirely successful, either. At times, he reminded me of Robin Williams working overtime to achieve sad-clown pathos; it may be a few years before Carrey can simply relax and be a normal Earthling, as Williams did in Dead Poets Society or Good Will Hunting. I suppose my basic complaint may sound ungrateful: Carrey isn’t very funny here — he doesn’t find humor in Truman beyond the “Good morning! And if I don’t see ya, good afternoon and good evening!” shtick we’ve seen in the ads.

Seahaven is actually a gigantic studio set, run by a Godlike director named Christof (Ed Harris); he’s literally the man in the moon — Seahaven’s faux moon is his headquarters. Harris is impressive in his intense, bullheaded way, as usual — but what, if anything, does Christof feel about Truman, his greatest creation? And what about the actress who plays Meryl, Truman’s wife? Laura Linney, in a terrific Chinese-box performance (playing an actress playing Meryl), shows glimmers of the real woman under the facade, but the script doesn’t help her. Does she have a life outside Seahaven? Perhaps even another man? All of these things might have been suggested, painted with delicate strokes and putting small holes in Truman’s illusion, instead of the broad hints he gets (a Klieg light falling from the sky, etc.).

The film gets to us occasionally, when it triggers common paranoia and plays on our fleeting thoughts that everything around us has been conspiratorially staged. But it’s amorphous; it can be interpreted any number of ways — for a while, I read it as the interior dissolution of a paranoid schizophrenic who has delusions of grandeur and finally hears the voice of God (Christof) in his head. The movie could be that, or it could be a statement about the decrease of privacy or the increase in isolation — and, of course, the media is to blame for it all. But “the media” is a meaningless straw man if you don’t also indict its audience — and, in the end, we’re let off the hook. The voyeurs become Truman’s ardent supporters, rooting for him to break out of the same false reality they’ve been watching for thirty years. The Truman Show isn’t meant to be taken literally, and it may appeal, like Forrest Gump, to softhearted idealists. But some of us may go out wishing for something meatier, edgier. Everyone in the movie seems as confined as Truman, and the gifted filmmakers seem as distant as Christof — looking down on us from the moon and dropping comforting pieties.

A Perfect Murder

June 5, 1998

846261A Perfect Murder, the new remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, is twisty and preposterous and boring; the last adjective seals its doom, for if it were twisty and preposterous and entertaining, it would be, well, a Hitchcock film. Or even vintage De Palma. As it is, the film plays like something you’d watch half-attentively on the USA network — a rickety plot machine that delivers the twists on schedule, with teasing little bits of sleaze and gore. But not nearly enough sleaze and gore — the movie is tasteful, for God’s sake, as if this were a serious endeavor instead of a pale, pulpy thriller.

Michael Douglas, by now a specialist in wealthy, implosive white guys who are rotting from the inside out, is some sort of tycoon — it hardly matters what exactly he does — who doesn’t trust his young wife (Gwyneth Paltrow). When Douglas sees Paltrow cozying up to a lank-haired hipster artist (Viggo Mortensen, looking like an unholy cross between Kurt Cobain and Harlan Ellison) at a cocktail party, he goes right up to Viggo and takes an interest in his paintings. Of course he suspects that Viggo and Gwyneth are doing more than discussing art, and of course he’s right, and of course he wants her dead. But instead of hiring someone else to snuff her, Douglas wants Viggo to do it. Huh?

Hitchcock could put this over — he could put pretty much anything over — but Andrew Davis, whose strengths lie in clean, economical action (Under Siege, The Fugitive), isn’t enough of a brilliant liar to help us suspend our disbelief. And his usual solid craftsmanship apparently wasn’t available to him here. Aesthetically, A Perfect Murder tries for an air of sleek malice, but it just looks and feels rancid. The cinematographer, Dariusz Wolski (who also shot — badly — The Crow and Dark City), may be the worst director of photography now working. (He ranks down there with Victor Kemper, one of Pauline Kael’s favorite punching bags in the ’70s.) There’s a scene between Gwyneth Paltrow and the Indian actress Sarita Choudhury (Mississippi Masala) — two of the great beauties of modern film — and Wolski’s lighting destroys them. I have to hand it to the guy; I didn’t know it was possible to make these women (especially Choudhury) look sickly and unattractive.

The movie falls into the predictable pattern of who’s-plotting-against-who, with everyone’s motivations reduced to cardboard. There’s some nasty business involving a meat thermometer, and Davis blows a great chance for sick horror-comedy — De Palma would’ve had the wit to show the thing taking the temperature of its victim. David Suchet plays a detective of Middle Eastern descent, a touch that seems included just so that Gwyneth can talk to him in his native language; she also speaks fluent Spanish, and I vaguely recall now that she’s supposed to be an interpreter for the United Nations — but why? It doesn’t figure in the plot, which in any case defines her entirely as a two-dimensional slut.

Just when the movie is winding down, Constance Towers shows up as Gwyneth’s mother, which amused me on many levels. Towers, a semi-regular on General Hospital recently, is best known among film geeks for her work in Samuel Fuller’s classics Shock Corridor and especially The Naked Kiss, where she was first seen as a bald-headed hooker beating the hell out of a john. I couldn’t decide whether to imagine what A Perfect Murder would’ve been like in Sam Fuller’s hands (ridiculous and crude and wonderful), or to consider that Towers isn’t much older than her son-in-law Michael Douglas. All of this ping-ponged through my mind during the last half hour, when I was supposed to be engrossed by the routine thrills and twists. I suggest you, too, find something amusing to think about while watching A Perfect Murder. Or better yet, find another movie.

Killer Instinct

June 1, 1998


Like the best making-of books, Jane Hamsher’s Killer Instinct(now out in trade paperback from Broadway, $13) is less about a specific movie — in this case,Natural Born Killers— than it is about a stew of egomaniacal, ambitious, or inept personalities boiling over. It makes for tasty reading, though I sure wouldn’t have wanted to be there. Hamsher produced NBK with her business partner Don Murphy (whom she clearly adores as a friend and highly respects as a partner, even though she spends half the book goofing on him); she was the logical left brain, he was the hot-headed right brain, and they were surrounded by no-brains — including the touted geniuses Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino, whom Hamsher characterizes as textbook cases of arrested development.

Hamsher is a witty writer, sometimes devastatingly so; it seems to me that women who struggle in power positions in Hollywood always have sharper senses of humor (perhaps out of necessity) than the analogous male players. She often appears to be the only sane person working on the movie, though she admits that eating ‘shrooms with Oliver and company in the desert wasn’t impeccable judgment on her part. The book chronicles the making of NBK from its humble genesis as a nearly-forgotten Tarantino script to its red-hot post-O.J. release in August 1994, when it scandalized critics and tantalized Gen-Xers. By then, Hamsher felt as if she’d been through combat — a good way to describe working with Oliver Stone, who likes to stir up conflict and emotion on his sets.

The production, in retrospect, reads like a recipe for catastrophe. Filming the riot scenes in a real Chicago prison, with real prisoners, resulted in a real prison riot — well, duh … did nobody see that coming? (In the film, when Tommy Lee Jones gets pegged in the head with a milk carton and the milk drips down his face, that was real — a prisoner chucked the milk, it hit Tommy Lee, he didn’t break character, and Stone kept it in the film.) Hamsher has 20-20 hindsight, but she convinces us that, with a chaotic project like NBK, it becomes almost impossible to tell what’s insane and what’s just business as usual. At its best, the book is about two ambitious young producers who attached themselves to a script they liked and ended up enduring the ultimate baptism by fire.

Oddly enough, the people you’d expect a producer to slam in a Hollywood memoir — the stars — are gently treated. Cynics may say that Hamsher just doesn’t want to jeopardize her star relationships, but in this case she seems genuine; her descriptions of the stars don’t seem out of character for them. Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, and particularly Robert Downey Jr. are shown as nice, down-to-earth people who get sucked into the vortex that is NBK. Hamsher reserves her venom for the men in charge.

Hamsher’s take on Stone is realistically hot-and-cold: sometimes she hates him, sometimes she kind of likes the guy (Stone knows how to turn on the charm when he wants to). Her take on Quentin is pretty consistently disdainful, but Quentin is a saint compared to some of the friends surrounding him, like Rand Vossler. Eventually credited as a co-producer on NBK (for doing nothing — he was given the credit, basically, to pacify him), Vossler is painted here as an egotistical crybaby who threatened to hold up Hamsher and Murphy in court so he could regain the rights to NBK and direct it himself. According to Hamsher, both Stone and Tarantino are talented men irreparably damaged by all the yes-men and kiss-asses surrounding them. (There’s a bit of mournful respect for Roger Avary, who, it turns out, is pretty much responsible for Quentin’s career: he wrote a script called The Open Road, which Tarantino expanded into a monstrous 400-page epic from which he later cannibalized almost every script he’s written. If you want back-up for an argument that Tarantino is little more than a parrot for other people’s work, this is the book you want in your corner.)

Killer Instinct is sinfully readable; I rocketed through it in two days, and when it was over I leaned forward a little, as if I were in a speeding car that slammed on the brakes — I wanted more. Well, Hamsher and Murphy are now producing the upcoming Apt Pupil, a Stephen King adaptation with its own controversy and problems (related to whether director Bryan Singer coerced teenage boys to appear naked in a shower scene). Maybe that mess will yield its own tell-all book, and I hope Hamsher survives to tell the tale.