Prince’s concert film–deftly and seamlessly integrating live performances in Antwerp and Rotterdam last summer with thematically related interludes shot in his Minneapolis studio–starts fairly effectively and builds steadily from there. Leroy Bennett’s lighting and production design and Peter Sinclair’s cinematography both help to make this a rousing show, full of sound and fury and signifying plenty, but Prince remains the undisputed auteur. The rapid editing recalls the scattershot method of certain rock videos, but the cinematic and musical savvy with which this is done avoids the coitus interruptus of The Cotton Club: the overall spectacle is enhanced, not curtailed or compromised. Dancer Cat Glover and (especially) drummer Sheila E. shine in these razzle-dazzle surroundings; Dr. Fink (keyboards) and Atlanta Bliss (trumpet) play “Now’s the Time” much too fast and still manage to swing; and Prince himself, passing through a spectrum of costumes and sexual roles, is never less than commanding, as performer, composer, and director. Songs include “Hot Thing,” “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” “The Cross,” “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “Play in the Sunshine,” “Forever in My Life,” and the title tune; see this in Dolby if you can. (Forest Park, Oakbrook, Plaza, Ridge, River Oaks, Water Tower, Woods, Evergreen, Hyde Park)
The four films to date of independent Chicago filmmaker Peter Thompson form two diptychs: not films to be shown simultaneously side-by-side, but successive works whose meanings partially arise out of their intricate inner rhymes and interactions. Two Portraits (1982), which has already had limited exposure in Chicago, describes the filmmaker’s parents: Anything Else, devoted to Thompson’s late father, combines stop-frame images of him, in an airport and outdoors, with a painful recording of his voice taken in a hospital and a multifaceted verbal portrait delivered by his son; Shooting Scripts juxtaposes the filmmaker’s mother, Betty Thompson, reading from her own diaries with a minimalist view of her sleeping on a beach chair, alternating stop-frames with privileged moments of movement. Together these films create a rich tapestry, but the more recent hour-long pair, Universal Hotel and Universal Citizen (1987), receiving their premiere here, create a still more ambitious and dense interweaving of objective and subjective elements. As Thompson puts it, this diptych deals with three main themes: “the emotional thawing of men by women, the struggle to disengage remembrance from historical anonymity, and nonrecoverable loss.” In the first film, Thompson describes his involved research about medical experiments in deep cold conducted on a Polish prisoner and a German prostitute by Dr. Sigmund Rascher at Dachau in 1942; photographs culled from seven archives in six countries, as well as a subjective dream set in the Universal Hotel, form the main materials. In the second film, the filmmaker’s offscreen meetings with a Libyan Jew and former inmate of Dachau who works as a smuggler in Guatemala yield a complex personal travelogue that leads us not only to the Universal Hotel (a real place, as it turns out), but also to the public square in Siena that appears at the beginning of the first film. These are all films that have grown out of years of reflection, and Thompson’s background as a still photographer serves him well in his haunting and original historical meditations; these works reverberate powerfully with a sense of the passage of time and the mysterious coalescence of disparate strands in a varied life. (Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday and Saturday, November 20 and 21, 7:00 and 9:00, and Sunday, November 22, 5:30 and 7:30, 281-4114)
Before he was blacklisted in 1951, director Martin Ritt received much of his training in live television, and the virtues as well as limitations of 50s TV drama at its best are still reflected in his movies. This all-star courtroom drama, adapted by Tom Topor, Darryl Ponicsan, and Alvin Sargent from Topor’s play, centers on a hearing held to determine whether high-class hooker Claudia Draper (Barbra Streisand), arrested on a manslaughter charge, is insane or not. Richard Dreyfuss is her appointed lawyer, Robert Webber is the prosecutor, and James Whitmore is the judge; Eli Wallach plays her appointed psychiatrist, and Maureen Stapleton and Karl Malden portray her grief-stricken parents. While the movie holds one’s attention throughout, and its liberal message is compelling, we are clued into certain facts about the heroine so early on that the audience is never really tested along with the characters. What might have been a sharper existential confrontation of our received ideas about sanity merely comes across as an effective courtroom drama, with strategically placed revelations and climaxes. Streisand produced, developed the script, and composed most of the music for this showpiece, and her efforts, as usual, pay off, above all in her angry and lively performance. (Esquire, Golf Mill, Grove, Lincoln Village, Mercury, Oakbrook, Orland Square, Ridge, River Oaks, Woodfield, Evanston, Ford City, Harlem-Cermak, Deerbrook)
From the Chicago Reader (November 20, 1987). — J.R.
CROSS MY HEART
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Armyan Bernstein
Written by Armyan Bernstein and Gail Parent
With Martin Short, Annette O’Toole, Paul Reiser, and Joanna Kerns.
Like a 3-D movie, in which the illusion of depth is utterly dependent on the spectator’s rigidly foursquare frontal viewing position, Armyan Bernstein’s Cross My Heart is flat and fuzzy around the edges; tilt your head slightly, and the roundness of the characters vanishes immediately. But because the characters holding the center of the screen are nearly always Martin Short and Annette O’Toole — consummate pros commanding and regulating the space between and around them like two generals at a summit conference — there’s rarely any reason to look aside; our attention is riveted.
For all their charisma, one wouldn’t have thought O’Toole or Short capable of such mastery on the basis of their separate and earlier outings. Despite his frequent brilliance on SCTV and Saturday Night Live, mainly as a parodist of narcissistic TV and movie personalities ranging from Dick Cavett to Jerry Lewis (by way of Katharine Hepburn), Short was both literally and figuratively dwarfed by Steve Martin and Chevy Chase in Three Amigos, although admittedly all three amigos were mainly stranded by the anemic comic material. He fared much better as a jumpy hypochondriac in Innerspace, with a microscopic Dennis Quaid coursing and carousing through his system; but the likable gimmick of that movie, which allowed director Joe Dante to intercut between two actors, two spaces, and two intersecting plots, also stranded Short in a way, often returning him to the solipsistic format of his best TV bits, like Dick Cavett Interviewing Himself.
O’Toole has been around the movies much longer, ever since she played one of the Young American Miss beauty contestants in Michael Ritchie’s 1975 Smile (along with Melanie Griffith, who made her debut in the same film). While I missed four of her subsequent movies – One on One, King of the Gypsies, Foolin’ Around, and 48 HRS. — there’s no question that her plucky independence as “the other woman” in both Richard Lester’s Superman III and Paul Schrader’s Cat People helped to humanize a rather schematic exercise in Freudian metaphysics in each case. Perhaps for this very reason, she too stood somewhat apart from her surroundings, combining small-town wholesomeness with sexiness in contexts that were principally urban/neurotic (and, in the case of Cat People, fundamentally antisex as well).
One way of judging performances is to look at what actors do before and after they deliver their lines — how they handle all the little spaces in between. In the case of Cross My Heart, a lighthearted comedy in which Short and O’Toole play David and Kathy, a couple out on their pivotal third date, such intervals are crucial, and the way that both actors fill them to the brim is one indication of just how good they are. Working together, they both surpass themselves, and the intricate ways that they inhabit their simple parts, pregnant pauses and all, keep them coasting, and us along with them. The film lasts 96 minutes, of which nearly 90 are devoted to the date; thanks to the two leads, not one of those minutes is superfluous.
As luck would have it, the worst film I saw last month at the Chicago Film Festival, Mark Deimel’s The Perfect Match, has an almost identical theme. Both movies are about the mutual deceptions of two people out on a date, each of whom fudges certain facts about herself or himself out of fear that the naked truth will be a fatal turnoff. While the couple in Deimel’s film, played by Marc McClure and Jennifer Edwards, meet through a classified ad (in the LA Reader, no less), both movies have the same overall principle and dramatic curve: the man and woman feel nervous and inadequate, but are spurred on and assisted in their lengthy preparations by their worldly confidants; the deceptions work at first, but eventually crumble; after a disastrous impasse, the couple are reunited and discover that they like each other after all.
To the extent that these movies are reflections of the 80s, one depressing aspect of them is that the deceptions are more or less taken for granted by both filmmakers. Neither the lies nor their eventual exposures are given much moral weight, as they more generally were in all the Billy Wilder comedies involving deceptions in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s, from A Foreign Affair to The Seven-Year Itch to Kiss Me, Stupid to The Front Page (among several others). Ironically, while Wilder was often accused of cynicism for creating heroes who were so willing to deceive, Deimel and Bernstein — who use deception mainly in order to set up their comic situations, without expecting us to linger over the implications — are more likely perceived as normal and expedient commercial directors simply doing their work.
I suspect the differences in attitudes mainly has to do with the built-in artificiality of TV sitcoms — the same thing that, for me, made the fatuousness of Marc McClure’s delivery in The Perfect Match, like the pasteboard characters and mechanical gag setups, so unbearable. If Short and O’Toole had been unlucky enough to find themselves in Deimel’s film, the falsity of their surroundings might conceivably have sunk them without a trace. What they get instead are all the advantages of concentration: a movie shot mainly in sequence, which allows Kathy and David and our perceptions of them to grow organically, and a respect for the unities that doesn’t quite make the film’s time equal to real time, but at least puts the two within hailing distance of one another.
As suggested above, the script for Cross My Heart, by director Bernstein and Gail Parent, isn’t entirely free of sitcom reflexes either, but at least they aren’t allowed to get in the actors’ way and twist them out of shape. The remarkable thing is how much mileage Short and O’Toole are able to get out of so little. The strategy of Bernstein’s script for One From the Heart, whereby all the characters are universalized into everyman and everywoman, is still somewhat in force here. (A rare exception is when David sits down at the piano and accompanies himself doing Martin Short’s Montgomery Clift impersonation; equally out of character, Kathy responds by saying, “I’m not sure who that was.”) This generalization of characters has a certain logic in a movie whose humor is chiefly based on recognizable, archetypal situations (example: David, alone in the kitchen, reaches into his underpants to rearrange his privates, and Kathy enters the room), but it has the unfortunate consequence of making both characters insubstantial, almost nonexistent, beyond the borders of their date.
What, after all, do we know about Kathy and David? We know that Kathy has a seven-year-old daughter named Jessica (whom we see briefly) and an addiction to cigarettes, neither of which she wants David to know about. We also learn early on from David that she has her own business, but the movie never gets around to telling us what that business is. We know that David has just been fired from his $30,000-a-year job as a sunglasses salesman, that his car is in the shop, and that he’s embarrassed about his nondescript apartment. His friend Bruce (Paul Reiser) offers to lend him his new Lincoln Continental and the keys to his fancy new apartment, which gives David three things to hide from Kathy. But given the little else that we know about him, there are surely more than three things about him that the filmmakers are hiding from us.
In short, everything in the movie exists only in relation to the date. The other characters — Bruce, Kathy’s sister Nancy (Joanna Kerns), Jessica, a guy who steals Bruce’s car by posing as a parking attendant, an irate neighbor of Bruce’s who wields a gun — are peripheral and awkward props at best.
Given these rigorous limitations, why does the movie work as well as it does? More precisely, how does it work at all? A significant clue is offered by Kathy when she says to David, “Life begins to look like an audition . . . You’re auditioning too, aren’t you?” She makes this point after telling him that she wants to be sure there’s some future in their relationship before they have sex, that she needs a “semicommitment”; David responds by scrawling her name and phone number with a marker on Bruce’s wall. But in fact her point about auditions would be equally pertinent at any stage in the proceedings. Dating, in the film’s terms, is a perpetual tryout; no wonder deceptions are adopted by both of them as second nature. And the notion of a test persists not only through all the banter and foreplay, but during and after their sex to boot: there’s a particularly funny stretch devoted to evaluating the precise degree and nature of Kathy’s orgasm — a task for her to perform as well as him. As actors, O’Toole and Short know what tryouts are all about, and their characters’ performances for one another are intimately connected — though scarcely identical — to their performances as actors for us.
Performance is largely a matter of seduction, and seduction generally proceeds by indirection. Kathy, who repeatedly tells David that she doesn’t want to be rushed, is already remarking to Nancy in the first scene that she must like David, because she’s shaving her legs above the knees; soon afterward, we learn that she’s packing her diaphragm, and she later proves to have condoms in her purse as well. (Apart from this nod to safe sex, the film aims at being contemporary without being especially topical.) But each aggressive move she makes toward David is countered and/or covered by a demurral — suggesting that they go to his apartment after ruling the possibility out, initiating their first kiss right after explaining why she doesn’t want to lie down on the bed. (Significantly or not, a similar duplicitous pattern is detectable in the hero’s girlfriend in Bernstein’s only previous film as writer-director, Windy City.)
If Kathy’s acting is mainly a matter of doing, David’s performance is more often a matter of being — such as the elaborate improvisations required to adapt himself to Bruce’s tacky and show-offy apartment, which he has never seen before. “Daters are liars,” he declares to Kathy after their covers are both blown, “what do you want?” Actors are liars, too; and the question that remains is, what do we want?
The tricky thing about acting over a void is filling up all the existential uncertainties that gape in between all the words and gestures, a problem for the actors as well as the characters. Paradoxically, while the characters in Cross My Heart never let us forget those uncertainties, Short and O’Toole charge ahead as if their own uncertainties didn’t exist — a tribute to their capacity to do two things at once.
From the Chicago Reader (November 13, 1987). — J.R.
HOPE AND GLORY
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by John Boorman
With Sebastian Rice Edwards, Sarah Miles, David Hayman, Derrick O’Connor, Susan Wooldridge, Sammi Davis, and Ian Bannen.
Disasters sometimes take on a certain nostalgic coziness when seen through the filter of public memory. Southerners’ recollections of the Civil War and the afterglow felt by many who lived through the Depression are probably the two strongest examples of this in our national history — perhaps because such catastrophes tend to bring people together out of fear and necessity, obliterating many of the artificial barriers that keep them apart in calmer times. When I attended an interracial, coed camp for teenagers in Tennessee in the summer of 1961, shortly after the Freedom Rides, the very fact that our lives were in potential danger every time we left the grounds en masse — or were threatened with raids by local irate whites — automatically turned all of us into an extended family. Considering some of the cultural differences between us, I wonder if we could have bridged the gaps so speedily if the fear of mutually shared violence hadn’t been so palpable.
The images that we inherit of other people’s disasters are often suffused by a similar nostalgia. Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom exploits this fact rather shamelessly, seeking to give audiences a feeling of emotional solidarity against apartheid that seems designed to last only until the house lights come on. In Hey Babu Riba — a sort of Yugoslav version of The Last Picture Show set in the 50s that is currently at Facets Multimedia — a group of high school friends and their families are all warmly united by their shared contempt for the Soviet stooges in their midst. The only strongly felt sequence in the mainly unfelt Radio Days shows a family drawing together over the tragedy of a little girl trapped in a well. And long before I saw Hope and Glory, John Boorman’s sprightly and multifaceted autobiographical account of the sublime pleasures he enjoyed as a seven-year-old during the London blitz, I was already primed by Graham Greene and the opening sections of Gravity’s Rainbow to view that event as sexy and romantic.
So Boorman’s “revisionist” view of life in the London suburbs in the early 40s and the attitude this reflects aren’t something new in the public imagination. But they are something new and unexpected to find in a John Boorman film. When the hero’s older sister Dawn (Sammi Davis) runs outside during an air raid and delightedly exclaims, “Look, come and see the fireworks!” or when her mother Grace (Sarah Miles) agrees to her having premarital sex with a Canadian soldier (”What does it matter? We may all be dead tomorrow”), we may feel like we’ve been there before; but it certainly wasn’t Boorman who took us there.
Part of the fascination of Hope and Glory rests in the degree to which it redefines the nine Boorman features that preceded it. Along with fascination, it is possible to feel a certain ambivalence: as much as I enjoy, respect, and admire the movie on its own terms, the recasting of the Boorman oeuvre that it implies makes me a little uneasy. To oversimplify a bit, the seven-year-old boy’s view of the cosmos that informs much of what is most exciting about Point Blank, Leo the Last, Zardoz, Exorcist II: The Heretic, Excalibur, and The Emerald Forest looks a lot different when it’s contained in and by a seven-year-old character, living in a world that we more readily recognize as our own.
The conventional wisdom about this would be that Boorman, now in his mid-50s, has finally grown up. The question that nags at me is whether, in the process, he might have grown down in some ways as well. After all, Boorman may be the first large-scale adolescent romantic to have emerged in the English cinema since Michael Powell, the director (or codirector) of The Thief of Bagdad, The Red Shoes, and Peeping Tom. (I’m deliberately excluding Ken Russell from the competition, a postromantic decadent if there ever was one.) And who in their right minds would ever want Michael Powell to grow up, even in his 80s?
If memory serves, all of the earlier Boorman features mentioned above, with the exceptions of The Heretic and Excalibur, were shot in a ‘Scope format. Hope and Glory isn’t, and given the intimacy and scale of its subject matter, it shouldn’t have been. While the multiple set constructed for the film covered over 50 acres — making it, according to Boorman, “probably the largest set built in Britain since the war” — the suburban neighborhood of semidetached houses that forms its centerpiece feels much too snug to register on an epic scale. Even in the most spectacular scene, when a barrage balloon breaks free of its moorings and knocks against buildings, the magic of the moment feels circumscribed, as if it were all occurring under a circus tent. (Like the bite-size cosmology of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics or the town’s expedition to look at an ocean liner in Fellini’s Amarcord, it feels pared down to a child’s perspective.)
While most treatments of war from Homer to Tolstoy and from All Quiet on the Western Front to Full Metal Jacket balance intimate details with an epic scale, these are all treatments that include soldiers as well as civilians. In Hope and Glory, barring only a pathetic-looking grounded German pilot, the aforementioned Canadian boyfriend, and the hero’s noncombatant father, Clive (David Hayman), there are no real warriors at all — none, that is, except for the seven-year-old boy and his classmates, the only consistently violent characters that we see. And however much the film’s episodes are viewed from a child’s perspective, the narrating voice of Boorman, situated in the present, situates them within a broader context.
For a director as personal and as self-conscious as Boorman, Hope and Glory offers a golden opportunity to provide glosses and indirect commentaries on his earlier films, and he takes full advantage of it. Early in the movie, after seven-year-old Bill (Sebastian Rice Edwards) has established that Hopalong Cassidy is more real to him than the war raging outside, he is playing with toy lead figures. Narrating for him offscreen, Boorman identifies two of these figures as King Arthur and Merlin, and adds that “I was riding high through the enchanted forest”; in one fell swoop, his last two features, Excalibur and The Emerald Forest, are pinned neatly into place. The ambivalence of Boorman and Bill about growing up in a family dominated by women throws some light on the antiutopia run by women in the SF future society of Zardoz. Similarly, the weakness of Bill’s father — thrown into relief by Grace’s love for and devotion to Clive’s best friend, Mac (Derrick O’Connor) — links up with the mysterious patriarchal figures presiding over the metaphysical worlds of Point Blank and Zardoz. Both films chart the progress of their aboriginelike heroes as they claw their way to the top in order to confront these fearful rulers, only to discover at the end that these figureheads are ineffectual clowns — Carroll O’Connor and the Wizard of Oz, respectively.
The effect of this psychoanalytical reading of Boorman’s obsessions is, in one sense, to belittle them. But the beginning of his career as a feature director coincided with the advent of pop art in the mid-60s, and Boorman’s grasp of that movement’s iconography tended to distance and leaven with cool irony his more overheated mythological concerns. The latter usually juxtaposed a Rousseau-like version of Natural Man and the faceless abstractions of modern technology, and there was often a sense of comedy as well as tragedy in the resulting collisions: Lee Marvin training his gun on an empty mattress or a telephone (Point Blank), Sean Connery teaching himself to read L. Frank Baum (Zardoz). Tarzan Versus IBM, an alternative title proposed by Godard for Alphaville, would serve almost equally well for Point Blank, Zardoz, Deliverance, The Heretic, or The Emerald Forest. If critics tended to balk at these films’ intellectual pretensions while usually tolerating their equally puerile macho conceits — so that Zardoz was considered a hoot while the comparably inflated Deliverance was regarded as “serious” – Hope and Glory avoids such objections by proposing itself as a comic book for adults, and an understated English one at that.
But the earlier movies had at least the courage of their silliness, which gave them a wide-eyed conviction and vibrancy that Hope and Glory, for all its beauties, lacks. The latter holds its own as a film (in the art house sense), but as a movie it misses the wildness and reckless risk taking of earlier Boorman.
Some of this difference may be a matter of roots and national identities. If the Anglophobia of the auteurist revolution in film taste that occurred in the 60s tended to exempt Boorman, along with Alfred Hitchcock and Joseph Losey, this was largely because Boorman, like Hitchcock and Losey, wasn’t perceived as a purely English filmmaker. After a low-budget first feature with the Dave Clark Five in 1965 (Catch Us if You Can, released in the U.S. as Having a Wild Weekend), Boorman became an expatriate, settling first in Los Angeles and later in Ireland. Prior to Hope and Glory, his only pictures with English settings and subjects since his first were Leo the Last and Excalibur, neither of which could be regarded as “typically” English. Indeed, considering Boorman’s usual metaphysical bents, it seems fitting that the only critical book devoted to him to date is by a Frenchman, Michel Ciment.
From this standpoint, Hope and Glory is a homecoming film, and it is widely regarded as such in the English press. Although, ironically, only a fraction of the film is English-financed, English critics have been quick to praise the new Boorman for his very English lack of pretension. In the Monthly Film Bulletin, Charles Barr applauds the film’s refusal to tailor itself to an “international” (i.e., American) market by situating all its action prior to America’s main entry into the war, and by using cricket as a major motif. (Before going off to war as a typist, Clive teaches Bill how to perform a “googly” — succinctly described by Barr as “the wrist-spun off-break bowled, deceptively, with the action of a leg-break” — and Bill later uses this trick to defeat both his irascible grandfather and Clive himself, in separate matches.)
Portions of Hope and Glory are sentimental, but it must be admitted that Boorman generally doesn’t sentimentalize his younger self. When Grace is about to send Bill and his younger sister off to Australia for safety, he blurts out angrily, “I’m going to miss the war — and it’s all your fault!” Then, after she becomes hysterical and changes her mind, he chastises her for her emotional display and declares that he wants to leave after all. Mac has to step in to settle the issue.
One should add that some of the film’s more sentimental moments are also some of the best: Dawn singing “Begin the Beguine” while Grace accompanies her on piano; Grace’s handstand on a beach, and her inchoate expressions of longing for Mac in the same scene; the family’s arrival at the grandparents’ haven in Willow Mead — a site where the war seems magically absent — after their house accidentally goes up in flames; the triumphant exhilaration of the ending, complete with “Pomp and Circumstance” on the sound track. But at the same time that Boorman seduces us with such enchantments, he also deceives us with a crafty little googly of his own — persuading us that he is embarking on a fresh adventure while aiming straight for the heart of old-fashioned English cinema.