Monthly Archives: September 1987

Tough Guys Don’t Dance

Norman Mailer’s best film, adapted from his worst novel, shows a surprising amount of cinematic savvy and style from a writer whose previous film efforts (Wild 90, Beyond the Law, Maidstone) were mainly unvarnished recordings of his own improvised performances. Working for the first time with a mainstream crew and budget and without himself as an actor, he translates his high rhetoric and macho preoccupations (existential tests of bravado, good orgasms, murderous women, metaphysical cops) into an odd, campy, raunchy comedy thriller that remains consistently watchable and unpredictable –a s goofy in a way as Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Where Russ Meyer featured women with oversize breasts, Mailer features male characters with oversize egos, and thanks to the juicy writing, hallucinatory lines such as “Your knife is in my dog” and “I just deep-sixed two heads” bounce off his cartoonish actors like comic-strip bubbles; even his sexism is somewhat objectified in the process. Coaxing good performances out of his male actors (Ryan O’Neal, Lawrence Tierney, Wings Hauser) and mannerist displays from his actresses (including Isabella Rossellini and Debra Sandlund), he is certainly capable of broad strokes — the southern accents are laid on with a trowel — but his framing, editing, and uses of sound and music are often fresh and tangy.… Read more »

Best Seller

While it may not add up to anything very profound, this paranoid thriller is put together with so much craft and economy that a significant part of its pleasure is seeing how tightly and cleanly every sequence is hammered into place. Brian Dennehy is Dennis Meechum, an incorruptible police detective who doubles as a successful crime writer; James Woods is Cleve, a hit man who doubles as a corporate executive, and who wants Meechum to write a nonfiction best seller exposing his ruthless and respectable former boss–a philanthropist tycoon who has stealthily slaughtered his way to the top. Dennehy’s square and skeptical cop is an adroit reading of a dull part, but he makes a wonderful straight man for Woods’s fascinatingly creepy yet sensitive killer–modeled in part on Robert Walker’s Bruno Anthony in Strangers on a Train, with a comparable homoerotic tension between the two men. Tautly and cleverly scripted by Larry Cohen, crisply shot by Fred Murphy, and directed by John Flynn without a loose screw in sight, this is first-class action story telling, stripped to its essentials: no shot is held any longer than is needed to make its narrative point, and the streamlining makes for a bumpless ride.… Read more »

A Room With No View [ORPHANS]

From the Chicago Reader, September 25, 1987. — J.R.

ORPHANS

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Alan J. Pakula

Written by Lyle Kessler

With Albert Finney, Matthew Modine, Kevin Anderson, and John Kellogg.

Although the conventional Hollywood wisdom about adapting plays into movies is that plays should be “opened up,” the practical effect of this is often roughly equivalent to letting the air out of tires: the air may circulate more freely, but the wheels no longer turn. Fortunately Alan J. Pakula is a sensible enough man to recognize this danger, and the best thing that can be said about his movie of Orphans is that, by and large, he has allowed the original play to remain a play. Indeed, only by respecting the integrity of the original has he managed to adapt it into a fairly successful movie.

A contemporary play set in the present, Lyle Kessler’s Orphans has a distinctly uncontemporary, even old-fashioned flavor to it. Largely concerned with intense family relationships and feelings — between brothers, and between father and sons — it has virtually no traces of sadomasochism, which alone suffices to make it unfashionable as theater in this post-Pinter era. In a time when Sam Shepard’s laconic Marlboro ads are experienced as existentially authentic, and Wallace Shawn’s intricate lacerations and varieties of self-loathing are regarded as cathartic, Kessler’s primal depictions of brotherhood and fatherhood, without the usual smirking ironies, are simple and direct to the point of embarrassment.… Read more »

A Film of the Future

I truly regret not being able to illustrate this early piece for the Reader, published in September 1987, with the sort of illustrations its awesome landscapes deserve. In fact, the only other film by Tian Zhuangzhuang (see photo above) that I’m aware of that’s comparably impressive from this standpoint is his extraordinary Delamu (or, in Chinese, Cha ma gu dao xi lie), a 2004 documentary that’s even more neglected, at least in this country (see the photo below, immediately after the absurdly small landscape photo from The Horse Thief).

It’s worth adding that one can now obtain The Horse Thief inexpensively, letterboxed and with English subtitles, at www.yesasia.com/us/1005182257-0-0-0-en/info.html–-J.R.

*****

THE HORSE THIEF

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang

Written by Zhang Rui

With Cexiang Rigzin and Dan Jiji.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

If the two aesthetically richest decades in the history of cinema have been the 1920s and the 1960s, it is in no small part due to the fact that it was during these two golden ages that film came closest to becoming a universal language. Some recent film theorists, arguing that film images are dependent on linguistic structures, have denied the claims for silent film’s universality.… Read more »

Landscape Suicide

From the Chicago Reader (September 18, 1987). — J.R.

landscapesuicide

All of James Benning’s features can be regarded as shotgun marriages in which he attempts to wed his distinctive formal talents and interests — framing midwestern landscapes with beauty and nostalgia, using ambiguous offscreen sounds to create narrative expectations — with an intellectual and/or social rationale. Landscape Suicide is almost certainly his most successful and interesting foray in this direction since his One Way Boogie Woogie of ten years ago. Delving into two murder cases — Bernadette Protti’s seemingly unmotivated stabbing murder of another teenage girl in a California suburb in 1984, and Ed Gein’s even more gratuitous mass slayings and mutilations in rural Wisconsin in the late 50s — Benning uses actors to re-create part of the killers’ court testimonies, juxtaposed with the commonplace settings where these crimes took place. Boldly eschewing the specious psychological rhetoric that usually accompanies accounts of such crimes, he creates an open forum for the spectator to contemplate the mysterious vacancy of these people and these places, and their relationships to each other. The performances of both actors, Rhonda Bell and Elian Sacker, are extraordinary achievements, and the chilling, evocative landscapes have their own stories to tell; the fusion of the two creates gaps that not even the film’s confusing title can fill, but the space opened up is at once powerful and provocative.… Read more »

The Time to Live and the Time to Die

A reflective autobiographical film about filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien’s youth in the late 40s and early 50s; largely filmed in the same places in Taiwan where the events originally happened, this unhurried family chronicle carries an emotional force and a historical significance that may not be immediately apparent. Working in long takes and wide-screen, deep focus compositions that frame the characters from a discreet distance, Hou allows the locations to seep into our own memories and experience, so that, as in Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs, we come to know them almost as intimately as touchstones in our own lives. Yet paradoxically, the unseen Chinese mainland carries as much weight in the film as the landscape of Taiwan: Hou’s Christian family left in 1948, and the revolution that followed made it impossible for them to return. Subtly interweaving everyday details with processes and understandings that evolve over years, the film conveys a density of familial detail that we usually encounter only in certain novels, and a sense of the tragic within hailing distance of Ozu. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, September 11, 8:00, and Sunday, September 13, 5:00, 443-3737)… Read more »

Naked Spaces–Living Is Round

Significantly, when Vietnamese filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha gives herself a director’s credit in her remarkable meditation on West African life and architecture, she places an X over the word “directed.” Why? Because a central aspect of her project is the dislocation of the authority by which we generally presume to understand the alien, and redirection and indirection are equally descriptive of what she is up to. A composer and a poet, she pans and cuts in irregular rhythms, continually stopping and starting, and rather than “direct” our focus and interpretation like an anthropologist, she interweaves three distinctly accented female voices speaking English, each of which conveys a different kind of discourse, traversing the images at different angles. Like the separate typefaces in Mallarme’s poem “A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance,” these voices and mesmerizing recordings of African music encircle and commingle with their subjects rather than attempt to capture them in linear/colonial/narrative fashion. (Sample: “The house is composed like the human body. The earth or clay is the flesh, the water the blood, the stones the bones, and the placid surface of the walls the skin.”) The results are both beautiful and instructive, a duet between filmmaker and subject, disclosures and enclosures, which remains perpetually fresh and unpredictable over the film’s 134 minutes.… Read more »

The Man Who Envied Women

It’s strange to recall that as a modern dancer and choreographer, Yvonne Rainer was known throughout the 60s and early 70s as a minimalist. For the past 15 years, she has been making experimental quasi-narrative films of an increasing multitextual density, culminating in this angry, vibrant film of 1985, which, in her own words, takes on “the housing shortage, changing family patterns, the poor pitted against the middle class, Hispanics against Jews, artists and politics, female menopause, abortion rights. There’s even a dream sequence.” Working with the speech and writing of over a dozen figures, ranging from Raymond Chandler to Julia Kristeva, Rainer also confronts and parodies male theoretical discourse (Michel Foucault in particular, sampled and discussed in extended chunks) as a mode of sexual seduction. Politics have been present in all her features, but usually folded into so many distancing devices that they mainly come out dressed in quotes. Here she allows the politics to speak more directly and eloquently, and it charges the rest of the film like a live wire–rightly assuming that we could all use a few jolts. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Thursday, September 10, 6:00, 443-3737)… Read more »

Summer Night

The full title of this Lina Wertmuller effort is Summer Night With Greek Profile, Almond Eyes & Scent of Basil. It’s more or less Swept Away II, with Michele Placido’s Sicilian kidnapper replacing Giancarlo Giannini’s deckhand, and Mariangela Melato playing an even richer member of the ruling class, who has the kidnapper kidnapped and brought to her lushly appointed island to launch some retribution and, eventually, some sexual games. Wertmuller remains as cheerfully cynical and vulgar as ever about class warfare, but to call her a thinking director, as some American critics were wont to do in the 70s, would be like applauding Sylvester Stallone for his semiological insights. Try to imagine an Ayn Rand epic recast as bawdy farce and you might get a rough idea of the sensibility on view; the lack of self-consciousness, which lends a certain thrust to the opening reels, eventually leads to tedium as the central conceit gets spun out endlessly. With Roberto Herlitzka and Massimo Wertmuller. (JR)… Read more »

Second Wind

A first feature by Dutch filmmaker Gerrard Verhage, previously known for his social documentaries, follows a group of intellectuals, confined by a thunderstorm to a house on the outskirts of Amsterdam, through an afternoon and evening, as long-suppressed emotions and problems begin to surface. A film that has been compared to Scenes From a Marriage as well as The Big Chill and The Decline of the American Empire, with a distinguished cast drawn from the Dutch stage.… Read more »

Nice Girls Don’t Explode

Don’t be fooled by the promising title: despite the presence of Barbara Harris, this 1987 effort was one of the unfunniest youth comedies in years. A protective mother (Harris) who doesn’t want to part with her daughter April (Michelle Meyrink) secretly rigs up explosives so that she’ll think it’s her hormones that are telekinetically starting the fires. Whatever comic premises Paul Harris’s script might have had, we’ll never know, because the leaden direction of first-timer Chuck Martinez sinks them without a trace. With the ubiquitous Wallace Shawn, more lugubrious than usual, as a friendless, eccentric arsonist, and William O’Leary as the boyfriend. (JR)… Read more »

Hellraiser

What ever happened to movie plots? This 1987 first feature by celebrated English horror writer Clive Barker starts off with a potentially viable one, and shows some flair with cutting and framing that bodes well for the future. But at the point where the characters in this magic box/haunted house tale should be turning into something more than cardboard, Barker turns them into chocolate puddingpulling out all the stops, letting Bob Keen’s jazzy special effects take over, and asking plot, character, and logic to take an aimless walk around the block. None of this is the fault of the actors: Andrew Robinson, Clare Higgins, Ashley Laurence, and Sean Chapman are uniformly good for the little they’re asked to do. Minor grisly fun, but don’t expect the movie to linger when it’s over. R, 94 min. (JR)… Read more »

Hamburger Hill

The three critical questions to be asked of any movie are (1) what does it try to do? (2) does it succeed? and (3) is it worth doing? This film tries to make a conventional, apolitical combat story out of one of the most brutal battles fought in Vietnam, and succeeds impressively. Writer/coproducer Jim Carabatsos, drawing on his own Vietnam combat experience, trots out most of the cliches we remember from 40s and 50s war films and still manages to give them some ring of truth; director John Irvin leads 14 unknown actors through gritty action sequences and deft ensemble playing (Courtney B. Vance’s angry black medic is a particular standout). The question that remains is whether it’s worth doing another uncritical war-is-photogenic-hell excursionaccommodating the Vietnam experience to the same unquestioning, grunt-level perspective that sustained us through World War II and Korea while priming us for still more noble sacrifices by steadfastly refusing to look any further. Less pretentious than Platoon and more attentive to the Vietnamese than The Deer Hunter, this picture proposes with a great deal of skill and sincerity that we honor and respect the men who suffered on our behalf without even beginning to consider why they did so, or to what effect.… Read more »

Wolf At The Door

The wolf in question is painter Paul Gauguin, played by Donald Sutherland, and director Henning Carlsen is at pains to make him something of a stud. This French-Danish coproduction shot in English restricts its focus to Paris and Copenhagen, 1893-’94, between Gauguin’s two extended sojourns in Tahiti, when he is trying unsuccessfully to sell his work, hanging out with other Parisian artists (including August Strindberg, played with owlish wit by Max von Sydow), and coping with four womenhis former and present models (both of whom he is sleeping with), his unforgiving wife, and a 14-year-old neighbor with a powerful crush on him. Thoughtful and occasionally thought provoking, despite a rather patronizing treatment of the women, the film examines Gauguin’s jaundiced views of civilization and the high price paid for his own bohemianism. With Valerie Morea, Sofie Graboel, Fanny Bastien, Merete Voldstedlund, and a virtually unrecognizable Jean Yanne. (JR)… Read more »

The Wannsee Conference

A meticulous reconstruction of the meeting of 14 top German officials in a Berlin suburb on January 20, 1942, that set the Final Solution in motion. (Among those present were Reinhard Heydrich and Adolf Eichmann.) Directed by Heinz Schirk from a screenplay by Paul Mommertz, this docudrama was financed largely by German and Austrian TV and shown overseas in 1984. Convincingly done and predictably chilling, though it isn’t clear from the credits how much of the meeting is drawn from existing records and how much comes from the filmmakers’ imaginations. But it doesn’t teach us anything we haven’t already learned from much better films on the subject, such as Shoah. In German with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »