Mae West’s swan song to cinema at age 86 is one of the world’s all-time worst movies but that doesn’t detract at all from its immense charm and lewd fascination. Based on West’s own play, directed after a fashion by Ken Hughes (reportedly many hands were involved), and including such standbys as Timothy Dalton, Tony Curtis, Dom DeLuise, Ringo Starr, George Hamilton, Alice Cooper, Keith Moon, Walter Pidgeon, Rona Barrett, and George Raft, the movie often defies description as an inept but heartfelt tribute to West’s talent and worldview, produced by two wealthy English West fans in their early 20s. This is amateur filmmaking at its most delirious, complete with a rousing production-number version of “Hooray for Hollywood”; West herself remains visibly sedated but indefatigably game throughout. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, September 30, 7:30, and Saturday, October 1, 4:00, 443-3737)
David Cronenberg’s finely tuned new feature is a psychological thriller exploring the complex lives of two gynecologists, identical twins (both played by Jeremy Irons) who share everything from their girlfriends to the successful fertility clinic that they jointly run. Their close mutual ties become challenged when they both become attracted to the same actress (Genevieve Bujold). Cronenberg and Norman Snider wrote the script, adapted from a novel by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland. Cronenberg’s most ambitious film to date is an astonishing tour de force–especially for Irons, whose sense of nuance is so refined that one can often tell which twin he is playing in a particular scene in a matter of seconds–and the special effects utilized in the scenes with both twins are so well handled that one quickly forgets their presence. But the sheer unpleasantness of the plot, inspired by a real-life case, guarantees that this isn’t a film for everyone, and spectators like myself who find the character played by Bujold (in one of her best performances to date) more interesting than either of the twins are bound to feel rather frustrated by the end. Overall, the film is dense and impressive, but personally I still prefer Videodrome. (Golf Mill, Grove, Oakbrook, Orland Square, Plaza, Ridge, Water Tower, Woodfield, Ford City, Harlem-Cermak, Deerbrook, Evanston, Hyde Park, Norridge, Webster Place, Chicago Ridge)
From the Chicago Reader (September 23, 1988). — J.R.
1. A front-page story in the August 24 Variety begins, “Last week’s Republican National Convention garnered the worst network ratings of any convention in TV history.” An interesting piece of information, but not, as far as I know, one that was noted in daily newspapers, weekly newsmagazines, or on TV. Why does one have to go to Variety to discover this morsel of recent history? Perhaps it has something to do with Variety’s status as a trade journal. Mainstream print and TV journalism may be part of the entertainment business, but they’re not generally about entertainment in the sense that a publication like Variety is.
The story in Variety goes on to report that both of this summer’s political conventions significantly boosted video rentals; a couple of large video rental chains reported increases in business between 30 and 57 percent. Do we interpret this as an opting for entertainment over news coverage, or as a preference for one kind of entertainment over another? Do we read it as a sign of desperate cynicism, or as a sign of healthy liberation? Or, if we read it as the latter, was it liberation only from the standard TV shows that the conventions were preempting?
According to contemporary parlance, it degrades a presidential campaign to regard it simply as entertainment, but validates a movie to regard it the same way. But with show biz equally operative and pertinent in both spheres, we do ourselves a certain disservice when we make these hard distinctions. Both movies and presidential candidates are designed to tell us what we want to hear — a task they perform either well or badly. As Richard Dyer points out in his essay “Entertainment and Utopia,” “Two of the taken-for-granted descriptions of entertainment, as ‘escape’ and as ‘wish-fulfillment,’ point to its central thrust, namely, utopianism.” And this utopianism, Dyer adds, “presents, head-on as it were, what utopia would feel like rather than how it would be organized.”
2. It may be a partial legacy of the Puritan work ethic that making money is not regarded in our society as any sort of escape. So little, in fact, is it currently considered a form of escape that virtually every other activity that fills our lives — eating, reading, thinking, sleeping, bathing, having sex, exercising, watching TV, talking to friends or relatives, going to movies, getting drunk or stoned — is considered a form of escape, an escape from making money and whatever that entails. Some of these “secondary” activities are treated with more respect than others, but they all generally take a back-seat to what most of us consider the main order of the day, which is going to work.
3. Entertainment is often defined in our minds by what it isn’t. “The life of Jesus isn’t entertainment,” read one of the placards in front of the Biograph a few weeks ago (or words to that effect), in protest of The Last Temptation of Christ. Another placard read, “God doesn’t like this movie.” Does that mean that God wasn’t entertained by it?
Roger Ebert recently objected on television to a scene in Betrayed in which a black man is hunted down for sport by a group of white racists. Citing the unpleasantness of this scene as a major reason why he didn’t like the movie, Ebert argued — again, I rely on memory — that it didn’t belong in a piece of Hollywood entertainment.
If we often define entertainment according to what it isn’t, our list of negatives may be almost as long as our list of escapes from making money: Entertainment isn’t art. (Art makes us nervous, usually requires dressing up, and, worst of all, is taught to us in school and is a risky way of making money.) Entertainment isn’t religion. Entertainment isn’t philosophy. Entertainment isn’t politics. Entertainment certainly isn’t making money. And for some people, entertainment isn’t thought, either. “I go to movies to relax and be en tertained,” a call-in listener remarked on Milt Rosenberg’s radio talk show Extension 720 last month. “If I want to think, I listen to your show.” (When nudged, however, she admitted that Extension 720 was relaxing, too.)
4. The French are fond of using the word “pleasure” a little bit like the way we use the word “entertainment.” One advantage to “pleasure” is that it implies commitment rather than distraction, and doesn’t create a pejorative dichotomy between art (serious) and entertainment (nonserious). When entertainment is defined as a form of relaxation, or at least closely associated with that experience, the implication is that an absence of excitement or passionate feeling is as important to the experience as an absence of thought. (Ronald Reagan, by this criterion, is entertainment, not art.)
5. What is the stereotypical desire of the hardworking capitalist who comes home from a long day at work carving up his or her neighbors and wants a little peace and quiet? To unwind, relax, take it easy; take a bath, read the paper, see a show. To forget the world and the bloodbath one’s left behind and think about something else for a change.
The problem is, all of us, even the bloodthirstiest capitalists, cheat on this premise. People don’t stand in line to see movies like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, A Fish Called Wanda, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, or Die Hard with the intention of being put to sleep by them. One thing that these four box-office hits have in common is that they’re frenetic; their action is defined by catastrophes and they’re populated largely by manic types. To call them utopian may not be wholly inaccurate, but it doesn’t get us very far in describing what it’s like on an immediate level to watch them. Almost going to hell in a handbasket is what most of the characters in these movies seem to be doing. Are narrow escapes from oblivion and destruction the only form of utopia available to us — perhaps because we’re too jaded to believe in any others? It’s a commercial trend, in any case, that has been with us at least since The Terminator (1984) — a movie that postulated apocalypse as a prerequisite for a happy ending.
6. “Movies are your best form of entertainment,” the old advertising slogan goes. You can be pretty sure that no one would ever think to claim, “Films are your best form of entertainment,” because films, as opposed to movies, are supposed to be “serious” — works of art, documentaries about important issues, foreign works with subtitles: rarefied and more upscale kinds of experience.
Errol Morris’s new feature, The Thin Blue Line, playing this week at the Music Box, is a good case in point because it manages to straddle these categories in a more obvious way than most other independent efforts. Even though it deals with real people and real events — those surrounding the murder of a Dallas cop in 1976 — as well as diverse speculations about them, the distributors are careful to refer to it as a “nonfiction” feature as opposed to a documentary, possibly so as not to scare away those who assume that it’s a “film” rather than a “movie.” According to the press materials, it “establishes a new genre in the tradition of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood” — a good example of a work that combines (or confuses) serious and nonserious categories in order to offer something for everyone (as they used to say in the 60s, different strokes for different folks).
Speaking for myself, I happen to find The Thin Blue Line entertaining — as a movie and as a film — in spite of the fact that it tries to do so much with its subject, metaphysically as well as journalistically, “entertainingly” as well as “seriously,” that it winds up as a work peculiarly divided against itself.
Included in the press materials for the film is an article by Morris that focuses on all the major facts and aspects of his subject that he decided to leave out of his feature, and in a way this supplementary data is every bit as absorbing as what he left in. The problem is, what’s entertaining about the movie — the fanciful re-creations of the crime, Philip Glass’s score, the handsome minimalist compositions, the film noir references, the callow Texas accents that we’re invited to laugh at in a superior manner — all intermittently work against the film’s efforts to be a serious social statement.
This isn’t to say that art (or entertainment) and social purpose always have to be in conflict with one another (think of Chaplin or Tati) — only that Morris hasn’t worked out a way that allows them consistently to serve the same masters. Metaphysical speculations about how innocent people can be convicted of crimes that they didn’t commit and the specific railroading of one hapless individual into the death penalty — later commuted to life imprisonment — are certainly related subjects. But the general should grow out of the particular rather than the other way around, and too many threads in Morris’s tapestry raise other questions — like motive — that his movie never addresses, but still can’t expel.
Because the plot isn’t a fait accompli, as the plot of Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man was (Randall Adams, apparently an innocent victim, is still in prison for the murder) the film’s soul-searching about fate overrides too many practical matters and issues, which it drops and kicks out of sight. One understands the technical problem: the necessity of making an endless jumble of facts lucid, legible, entertaining, on some level betrays its obscurity, its illegibility, its intransigence. Reaching for poetics to justify this obfuscation is understandable but dangerous. In the work of Werner Herzog, Morris’s mentor and principal influence, this has led to some of the worst excesses of German romanticism disguised as documentary and/or poetic truth — most recently, in Herzog’s Cobra Verde (according to some reports, a glorification of slave trading).
7. To cite a much greater film than The Thin Blue Line that doesn’t display the same kind of contradictions, I happen to find Shoah “entertaining” in a fashion as well. It might seem indecent to refer to a 503-minute nonfiction investigation into the Holocaust as “entertaining”; I certainly don’t want to imply that the film isn’t full of pain and sorrow, but let’s consider a hypothetical situation: a Jewish man who has lost most of his family in the Nazi concentration camps is watching all eight hours of Shoah. Most of us wouldn’t dream of calling this “escapism.” But it’s entirely possible that the man who is watching Shoah is so involved in the experience that he is forgetting all sorts of things that he might otherwise be concerned with: his hay fever, his problems at the office, his irritation about George Bush, his ailing spouse. Shoah certainly compels the viewer to think; as a complex statement that stages a dialectical encounter between existentialism and Judaism, the present and the past, it obliges us to reflect on the Holocaust in a way that many of us never have before.
But it’s only the use of “entertainment” in our vocabulary as a puritanical censoring device that arbitrarily isolates the experience of Shoah from the experience of being entertained at the movies. After all, Shoah is only a more concentrated, extended, and serious version of what we’re asked to think about in a “pure” movie like Judgment at Nuremberg. Why should the fact that Shoah performs this task infinitely better than Stanley Kramer’s movie, without the benefit of Judy Garland, deprive us of the validating term “entertainment”?
8. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), directed by William Wyler, is a good example of how the postwar 40s dealt with the challenge of bearing witness to a social reality and entertaining an audience at the same time. The mesh of strategies isn’t a perfect fit, and much of the film trails off into mystifications about what happens to armless veterans, for instance, but at least the 40s audience was willing to accept the results as a movie and a film at the same time. In the case of George Romero’s recent Monkey Shines, the mass audience got scared away from one of the purest movie entertainments of the year because the hero is a quadriplegic, and quadriplegics by (puritanical mis-) definition are incompatible with entertainment — unlike heroes who have two broken legs, like James Stewart in Rear Window. It sounds crazy and it certainly becomes self-defeating, but the very word “quadriplegic” makes Monkey Shines sound like a film rather than a movie to people who haven’t seen it. Even quadriplegics themselves aren’t amused, to judge from reports of a protest by quadriplegics against the movie’s trailer in Los Angeles — which suggests that practically everyone seems to agree a priori that quadriplegics and movies don’t mix. Consequently, one of the year’s most effective entertainments gets treated like a leper.
9. On the other hand, an alleged “film” like Wings of Desire is chock-full of old-fashioned movie pleasures, from ethereal flights over Berlin to Peter Falk’s gutbucket voice and husky charisma, and audiences don’t seem to mind at all. The movie doesn’t even ask us to think very much — less, say, than The Last Emperor, another good example of crossover between film and movie that doesn’t scare an audience away. But the best cover of all for a filmmaker who wants to do something adventurous and “filmic” is to hide behind a foolproof package, as director Renny Harlin does in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4. As long as there’s no apparent threat that anything “serious” is being attempted, a filmmaker is free to do anything at all — in this case, put together a film that is little more than a nonnarrative string of dreams.
10. Entertainment implies that only one part of the brain is being used. Secretly, I suspect, all of us would rather be enraptured than diverted, and shaken up rather than soothed, but supposedly, goes the received wisdom, there’s something “safer” about mild diversion- - even if it eventually becomes a bludgeoning form of oppression. Imagine drowning in a sea of Perry Comos and you’ve got the 50s and its taste for tranquilizers down to a tee. Or think of Ronald Reagan, who wouldn’t be caught dead in a film and has managed to catch us all, dead as doornails, at the movies. But as soon as we reduce our possibilities to an either/or proposition — art or entertainment, entertainment or edification — we’ve limited our capacities to experience any of them.
From the Chicago Reader (September 16, 1988). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Nicolas Roeg
Written by Allan Scott
With Oliver Reed and Amanda Donohue.
ASSAULT OF THE KILLER BIMBOS
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Anita Rosenberg
Written by Ted Nicoleau, Rosenberg, and Patti Astor
With Christina Whitaker, Elizabeth Kaitan, Tammara Souza, Mike Muscat, Nick Cassavetes, Dave Marsh, and Patti Astor.
A RETURN TO SALEM’S LOT
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Larry Cohen
Written by Cohen and James Dixon
With Michael Moriarty, Samuel Fuller, Andrew Duggan , Ricky Addison Reed, June Havoc, Evelyn Keyes, and Ronee Blakley.
The three movies listed above are all probably playing in Chicago this week, but not in any local theaters; they’re available in video rental stores and playing on home screens. Recent releases that have never opened theatrically, and presumably never will, they represent a growing breed of movie, at once omnipresent and unacknowledged.
Ever since the fairly recent time when the amount of money spent in this country on video rentals began to exceed the amount spent on movie tickets, notions about moviegoing have become even more specialized and limited. In contrast to moviegoing in the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s, when individual movies provided national experiences that were public and shared, moviegoing in the 60s, 70s, and 80s has increasingly become a less communal activity. The audience itself first subdivided in the 50s, when teen culture pulled away from the “general audience” mainstream and developed a separate market of its own; then the studios produced further cultural divisions by systematically targeting separate audiences and interest groups; and finally the advent of movies on tape has taken them from a public forum and placed them firmly in the private sector.
Thanks largely to this change, two separate movie cultures have taken shape. Most of the space in the media accorded to movie reviews is commanded by the old movie culture of theatrical releases. The new movies-on-tape culture is dealt with more sporadically and haphazardly–rather the way theatrical movies were handled in the press in the teens and 20s. Outside of a few video magazines and trade journals, new movies like Castaway, Assault of the Killer Bimbos, and A Return to Salem’s Lot, which are released in the U.S. almost exclusively on tape, get no attention at all. Unlike the media blitzes that accompany movies greased by expensive publicity machines, the media blackouts accompanying only-on-video releases are welcome in a way: video audiences are freer to follow their own whims, without critical and promotional prodding, and those with a spirit of adventure can make discoveries on their own.
In other respects, though, the silence of the press about these releases warps and limits our sense of movies as a whole. Just because a film fails to get a theatrical release, there is no reason to assume that it is any less important, less interesting, or less entertaining than the ones that hit the theaters. (Movie marketing strategy is often regarded as a science, when in fact it’s usually closer to astrology or roulette.) In fact, all three of the movies reviewed here are better than the average run of theater releases that I’ve seen over the past few months. They’re all less boring than Eight Men Out, less sentimental than Stealing Home, less empty than A Summer Story or Young Guns, less pretentious than A Handful of Dust, and less stupid than Cocktail or Arthur 2: On the Rocks.
Castaway, based on a nonfiction book by Lucy Irvine, follows a man and a woman who voluntarily spend a year together on a desert island. The man, Gerald (Oliver Reed), places a classified ad in the London listings weekly Time Out; we see him drafting it in the opening shot, behind the credits: “One year on a desert island. ‘Wife’ 20-30 needed to accompany man 45.” (Gerald crosses out “45″ and replaces it with “35+,” which already clues us in to some of the problems he will have to face later.)
The film’s opening adroitly charts, with intercutting, the separate lives of Gerald, a publisher, and Lucy Irvine (Amanda Donohue), an Inland Revenue clerk; Gerald is seen in a pub and with his young sons at home, Lucy on her way to work and with her female flatmate in their cramped apartment. Glimpsed newspaper headlines and overheard TV news stories hint at a general disturbance in traditional sexual roles, and when Lucy finally phones Gerald in response to his ad, both have TVs tuned in to the same movie about marital discord (The Pumpkin Eater); to enhance the rhyme effect, after the call both Lucy and Gerald report that they’ve been speaking to a friend.
In spite of a marked difference in their ages and attitudes (Gerald awkwardly informs Lucy at their first meeting, “You’re definitely going to be on my shortlist,” and generally comes on like an old-style chauvinist), the two hit it off, sleep together, and make preparations for traveling to Tuin, an island off the northern coast of Australia. They encounter their first serious problem when they learn that immigration laws require them to get married first; Lucy isn’t happy with this, since it effectively removes the quotation marks around “wife” in Gerald’s ad, but she reluctantly complies. A female journalist accompanies them to their tropical paradise, but soon they’re left alone — at which point the real trouble begins.
A pivotal point of contention is Lucy’s refusal to have sex with Gerald again (although she goes around seminude or nude for most of the film). Her reasons are never fully spelled out, although it’s evident that her irritation about Gerald’s laziness in building a shelter and his reluctance to lead a more structured life on the island has something to do with it. Gerald spends much of his time reciting obscene limericks, mainly to himself, and reading self-improvement books, although he does plant a vegetable garden and teach Lucy how to fish. Despite Lucy’s refusal to put out, she treats Gerald with consideration in most other respects; when he is badly stung by bees, for instance, she conscientiously nurses him back to health. A day’s visit from a couple of young men who are census takers unleashes some of Gerald’s rage and sexual frustration, but otherwise nothing essential changes between him and Lucy. Eventually they both become seriously ill, and nuns from Badu, a neighboring inhabited island, rescue them; afterward, Gerald takes periodic trips from Tuin to Badu to help the local populace as an all-around mechanic and also, apparently, to satisfy his sexual appetites. His increasing absences finally goad Lucy into sleeping with him again (and, more than that, into turning herself into a sex object a la Playboy in order to seduce him). After more than a year on Tuin, Lucy returns to London and Gerald decides to remain with the islanders on Badu.
The fact that all of this is based on a true story gives the film an air of uncertainty: one is never clear how much of the story is being invented or extrapolated from actual events. But Roeg is clearly nonjudgmental in the way he treats each character, and the ambiguities and densities of a real relationship are suggested throughout. (One even suspects that the factual basis of the story, as in Bresson’s A Man Escaped and Scorsese’s Raging Bull, adds to the sense of mystery rather than detracting from it, because the filmmaker respects the material too much to grossly “interpret” it.) Though the overall treatment is realistic, there are certain scenes that aren’t clearly real or imagined — and if they’re imagined, one can’t be certain whether it is Lucy or Gerald who is imagining them. Most of the scenes are brief, and they typically end inconclusively, with quick fade-outs; Roeg often cuts away to underwater shots to punctuate the dialogue (the film is resplendent with water imagery, majestically shot by Harvey Harrison), as if to suggest that the unspoken and unseen undercurrents between the couple are every bit as important as what we see and hear.
Castaway is the first Roeg movie since Don’t Look Now (1973) that’s scripted by Allan Scott, and the first Roeg movie since The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) that doesn’t feature his wife Theresa Russell. It is his second feature to be denied an American theatrical release (after the 1981 Eureka), and it already seems possible that his latest film, Track 29 — which was originally slated to open theatrically this summer, but has been repeatedly held back — won’t open in Chicago theaters either. [Postscript: It did.] Yet there are few contemporary English-speaking filmmakers around who are as consistently serious, adventurous, and interesting as Roeg is even when he fails (which is often), and few with a sense of style and form as well-defined as his. In some respects, his quasi-maverick status recalls that of John Boorman, at least before Boorman became respectable with Hope and Glory.
Oddly enough, the prototypical Roeg film, and in some ways the best, predates his directorial career: Petulia (1968), which was signed by Richard Lester. Roeg was Petulia’s cinematographer, and it seems likely that he found the basis for his own fast-cutting style and mosaic form in that picture, which retrospectively seems to fit very snugly within his oeuvre.
Castaway, to my mind, qualifies as one of his better recent works — a film that explores the mysteries of a contemporary relationship and actually manages to make a virtue of its detachment and open-endedness. The performances of Reed and Donohue are both richly detailed, and the film’s adept handling of the passage of time and the subtle developments in both characters keep it absorbing — which is no small achievement considering the overall absence of a clear “dramatic” agenda.
No such claims can be made for the likable but modest Assault of the Killer Bimbos, a first feature and low-budget exploitation item whose chief virtues are its unflagging cheerfulness and its unpretentious efforts to express some semifeminist attitudes in a genre of filmmaking where they’re hardly expected. The action centers on a waitress named Lulu (Elizabeth Kaitan) at the Aladdin-a-GoGo in Los Angeles. When one of the go-go dancers fails to show up, Lulu offers to fill in, but her act proves to be a disaster. The artificial fruit decorating her bikini flies off and hits various customers, and her general lack of expertise elicits jeers from the sleazy clientele. Shifty Joe Malone (Dave Marsh), the emcee and boss, calls her a bimbo and fires her on the spot. When Peaches, the main dancer, objects to this epithet, she and Lulu are both given their walking papers. As they’re preparing to leave, Shifty Joe is shot in his office by a hit man named Big Vinnie (Mike Muscat), who hands his gun to Lulu before he splits.
Needless to say, because Lulu is seen with the gun, she and Peaches become the prime murder suspects, and they immediately set out for Mexico in Peaches’s convertible. (”From now on, it’s us against the world!”) Dogged by radio descriptions of them, they stop to change clothes before entering a roadside cafe, where Lulu’s hot pants cause a commotion. There they meet a trio of beach bums (including Wayne-O, played by Nick Cassavetes, whom Lulu falls for) and befriend the beleaguered waitress Darlene (Tammara Souza). When a cop enters and tries to arrest them, Peaches holds her own gun to Darlene’s head and the three women take off in the car. It turns out that Darlene welcomes the excuse to leave her boring job, and after a few more chases and other adventures, the “killer bimbos,” the surfers, Big Vinnie and his girlfriend Poodles (Patti Astor), and the cop all miraculously converge at the same sleazy “no-tell” motel in Jalapeno, Mexico.
Part of my affection for this little movie is its revival of the kind of good-natured, semimindless romp that was much more common in the 60s and 70s, usually on the bottom half of double-bills at drive-ins. Flavored with peppy lines (like Peaches’s “Eat lead, bozos!” and Lulu’s “Put the pedal to the metal!”), Assault of the Killer Bimbos breezes along on its celebration of female camaraderie and everyday concerns (there’s a great deal of discussion, for instance, about whether or not “good-looking babes” need to wear makeup), usually to the churning accompaniment of pop songs on the sound track. (The featured single is “Don’t Call Me Bimbo.”) Undeterred by its lack of a theatrical release, the video includes a breathless promo for such spin-off items as a sweatshirt, a sound-track album, and a poster (”Join the Bimbomania . . .”), and even a sequel is threatened: “Bimbo Barbeque . . . the sizzling saga continues.”
A Return to Salem’s Lot, another exploitation picture, is a good deal more ambitious, albeit a bit choppier as well, with bargain-basement special effects and a rather shaky plot. Director and cowriter Larry Cohen is widely regarded as one of the unsung heroes of low-budget genre filmmaking — there’s a useful critical survey of his prolific output by Robin Wood in his book Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan — but for reasons that elude me, not many of his efforts seem to have made it onto video. I admired Cohen’s script for last year’s Best Seller, and was intrigued by his 1977 The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, but otherwise my acquaintance with his work is cursory at best. His present effort is a sequel to Salem’s Lot — a 200-minute made-for-TV opus, based on a Stephen King novel and directed by Tobe Hooper — which I haven’t seen. (According to Leonard Maltin, the overseas theatrical version of the Hooper film, 88 minutes shorter yet more violent, is available on tape here and turns up on cable as Salem’s Lot: The Movie.)
Joe Weber (Michael Moriarty), an anthropologist labeled by one of his cohorts as “a cold-blooded son of a bitch,” is called away from fieldwork in South America by his ex-wife (Ronee Blakley) in order to assume custody of his teenage son Jeremy (Ricky Addison Reed), a rebellious problem child. Joe drives with Jeremy to a broken-down bungalow in Salem’s Lot, Maine, willed to him by his Aunt Clara, whom he visited as a child.
It doesn’t take Joe and Jeremy very long to discover that Salem’s Lot, formerly known as Jerusalem’s Lot, is a village of vampires who originally settled there as pilgrims in the early 17th century, Joe’s Aunt Clara (June Havoc) among them. During the day, while the vampires sleep in their coffins, the town is run by human drones with no apparent will of their own. The leaders of the vampire community, Judge Axel (Andrew Duggan) and his wife (Evelyn Keyes), want Joe to use his ethnographic skills to write a “true” chronicle of their community — a “history” and “bible” that will become public in another 200 years, when the general public is ready for it. Although Joe is understandably reluctant to go along with this, he is eventually persuaded to embark on the project both by his son Jeremy (who likes the place and takes a shine to a young female vampire) and by his childhood sweetheart Cathy (who, like the other vampires, hasn’t aged and who seduces Joe and becomes pregnant by him).
If the above sounds a little cockeyed, the film becomes even screwier as it develops, and it suffers as well as benefits from this overall flakiness. Many of the background details are either fudged or kept blurry–perhaps an acquaintance with Salem’s Lot would help to straighten some of them out — and the script abounds in continuity problems. But the apple-pie Americanism and the alleged purity and Republican-like rectitude of the vampires makes for some effectively grisly satire. “We’re all dairy farmers in these parts,” Judge Axel points out to Joe while taking him on a tour of a barn, coming on rather like Ralph Bellamy in Rosemary’s Baby with his homespun folksiness. “You outsiders grow stock for meat, we grow ‘em for blood. See, human blood is still the best, but the way things are going nowadays, it’s not quite good for you, what with drugs and alcohol, hepatitis, and this AIDS virus going around.” Meanwhile, hapless human passersby are being sucked dry by the local populace, but Axel argues that the vampires subsist mainly on blood from the cattle.
What originally attracted me to A Return to Salem’s Lot, and what turns out to be its most winning feature, is the presence of filmmaker Samuel Fuller. He plays a human character, a compulsive Nazi-hunter and -killer named Van Meer who turns up belatedly but subsequently dominates the film and its remaining action. One of the surviving giants of Hollywood filmmaking, still working in his late 70s as a writer-director and novelist in Europe, Fuller has been appearing as a highly charismatic character actor in films by Jean-Luc Godard, Dennis Hopper, Steven Spielberg, Wim Wenders, and others since the 60s, and this low-budget effort provides him with his most extensive role to date. One of Fuller’s most distinctive traits as an actor is that he never memorizes lines; seeing himself mainly as a script doctor, he locates what he considers to be the “holes” in a script, in collaboration with the filmmaker, and then improvises a performance (or, in some cases, a cameo) designed to fill the holes.
In the case of A Return to Salem’s Lot, the holes that Fuller fills make up the narrative drive of the whole latter portion of the movie and provide a welcome gust of reality as well. Van Meer drives into Salem’s Lot looking for a former Nazi, but he quickly takes over the faltering Joe’s role as a moral and patriarchal force — teaching Joe how to discipline his son and leading him on a mission to destroy the vampires, which for him are the equivalents of Nazis. Fuller charges through this patchwork movie — a jumble of intriguing but disconnected and unstructured notions — like a crusader. If he doesn’t quite plug up all the gaps in the continuity, he does give the whole movie a shape and direction that it badly needs.
From the September 2, 1988 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Costa-Gavras
Written by Joe Eszterhas
With Debra Winger, Tom Berenger, John Heard, John Mahoney, Ted Levine, Maria Valdez, Betsy Blair, and Richard Libertini.
Although I liked Betrayed enough to make it a Critic’s Choice last week, a second look has convinced me that it has a fair number of strikes against it. Joe Eszterhas’s script clearly plows more than it sows, and sows (in a rather scattershot fashion) more than it reaps. The dialogue tends to fall back on so many familiar notions about simple farmers and hard-nosed federal agents that if less talented actors than Debra Winger, Tom Berenger, John Heard, and John Mahoney were assigned the lines, I doubt that we could accept them even half-heartedly.
Costa-Gavras’s direction, moreover, is more competent than inspired; the film functions as a thriller, but only barely. What the movie has going for it, really, is a germ of an idea — but one that is potent enough to give this story a sharp and unsettling charge. That the movie deals with rabid American racism without hedging on either its ugliness or its intensity is itself an accomplishment of some note. Nowadays overt racism is a “safe” and respectable subject for commercial movies only if it’s kept at a comfortable distance by being situated in South Africa or in another century — anywhere, in fact, but here and now.
Even movies of the repressed 50s dealt with racism more courageously and frequently than those of the present have — albeit in terms that were usually couched in the liberalism of the social-problem film. The racists in The Blackboard Jungle, The Defiant Ones, 12 Angry Men, The Phenix City Story, Sayonara, Baby Doll, and Imitation of Life (among others) were conveniently characterized by their “otherness” — fall-guy villains or stooges who rarely threatened the essential, right-thinking goodness of the heroes. The most interesting treatments of racism in that period — Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet, John Ford’s The Searchers, and Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil — complicated this simple polarity by giving us racist heroes or antiheroes who implicated the spectator in their own contradictions, although the emotional complications ensuing from this were never critically acknowledged at the time.
Conceptually speaking, Betrayed lies somewhere in between the social-problem film of the 50s and the more subtle and dangerous analyses of Fuller, Ford, and Welles. It gives us a right-thinking FBI agent, Cathy Weaver (Debra Winger), assigned to help solve the murder of a racist-baiting Chicago talk-show host (Richard Libertini). Under the name Katie Phillips, she infiltrates a suspected white supremacist group of midwestern farmers. Rather than keep us glued to this scenario throughout, the movie begins with the murder and then apparently switches course to show us Katie Phillips, a combine driver from Texas, meeting Gary Simmons (Tom Berenger), a Vietnam veteran and widower who lives on a farm with his mother and his two kids. Katie immediately falls for Gary’s family — in particular his little girl Rachel (Maria Valdez) — and gradually falls for Gary as well. Only after she meets Gary at work and then again at a local bar, gets invited to his house for supper, spends the Fourth of July with him and his family, and becomes romantically involved with him, do we discover that she is an agent named Cathy Weaver, formerly involved romantically with her FBI colleague (John Heard), to whom she reports her findings.
This already deviates from the 50s social-problem film in a couple of important respects. We’re allowed to become acquainted with Gary, his family, and his circle before we have much of an idea about his racism; we’re also allowed to become acquainted with Katie before we realize that she is a spy. From what we see of Gary, he seems a mite touchy and cranky, but none of this is allowed to interfere with what seems like a conventional setup for a conventional love story with a likable hero and heroine. (Debra Winger’s being Jewish, however, does fit the 50s formula of such movies as Gentleman’s Agreement, which featured Gregory Peck, a Jew, playing a gentile — in that case, to complicate matters, a gentile pretending to be a Jew.)
Radio talk-show host Sam Kraus, whom we see during the opening credits insulting and sparring with call-in listeners, and who is then gunned down shortly after leaving the studio, is made to seem every bit as repugnant as the racist villains in the 50s social-problem films; as played by Richard Libertini, he comes across as anything but a typical liberal martyr. Calling himself “Jewboy,” he jeeringly invites the “kike haters” to phone in, glibly insults lesbians and born-again Christians, taunts and humiliates a woman caller about being overweight, and in general acquits himself as obnoxiously as any anti-Semite could desire.
Costa-Gavras alternates shots of Kraus spouting his hate-filled diatribes in the studio with shots of blank, faceless skyscrapers; the fat woman who phones in is glimpsed from a distant balcony, but the other callers — including a woman who insists that the Holocaust was an “exaggeration” — remain unseen, and the assassin preparing to shoot Kraus is glimpsed only elliptically. All of these elements create a sense of paranoia and conspiracy that later portions of the film will build upon — not always well or wisely — but the apparent irrelevance of this opening to the budding love story that immediately follows is essential to the film’s overall strategy of disturbing us. Moving directly from sharp, abrasive urban divisions in the prologue to warmer social and communal gatherings in the country, we’re encouraged not to dwell on any interdependence or similarity of these two realms, though the film broaches them later.
Consequently, once the FBI enters the picture, we can’t simply and unequivocally get behind Cathy Weaver’s colleagues as the forces of good. Their mission is to bust a white supremacist conspiracy by nailing an assassin, which we certainly endorse, but their own vindictiveness and snappy aggression carry some echoes of the malice of Kraus. By the time that Cathy comes face-to-face with the rampant racism of Gary and his people, which the film contrives to make as shocking as possible, we can’t take sides without feeling some undertow of conflict about our position. Cathy/Katie, at the center of this conflict, remains our identification figure, and her sexual preference for Gary, over her FBI colleague David, as well as her qualms about spying on her lover, become emblematic of the moral ambiguities involved.
Part of the value of this ambiguity is that it attacks the compartmentalized ways we have of dealing with (or thinking about) prejudice — the naive belief that it can simply be isolated, contained, and thereby eradicated like bacteria. On one level, the film goes along with this belief by offering us an FBI that is supposedly free of prejudice (an astonishing notion and quite the reverse of the FBI that functioned under J. Edgar Hoover during the civil rights movement) in combat with lunatic racists who hunt down blacks in cold blood, teach their children that Jews are lice-ridden perverts, and dream of shooting down homosexuals in the streets. Yet on another level, the FBI and the supremacists are shown to be surprisingly similar in their isolation, their ruthlessness, and their blind hatred for their opponents — indeed, in their exclusive claims of humanity. (The increasing division of this country into autonomous special-interest groups separated by class, politics, race, and ethnicity has rarely been addressed in movies, which generally prefer to exploit such divisions in their marketing rather than to draw attention to them, and in a way this movie’s handling of this theme is even more striking than its handling of prejudice per se.)
This second level comprises the germ of the idea that makes Betrayed both provocative and unnerving. It simultaneously portrays Kraus and the FBI as rather grubby and humanizes the racists (without ever endorsing any aspect of their racism). Unfortunately, the only antidote to this vision it can offer is Cathy as a goddess of maternal love who ultimately rejects the FBI as well as the white supremacists so that she might someday teach love and understanding to Gary’s daughter Rachel. It’s a 50s solution that won’t wash, not even with a gooey freeze-frame to drive it home, because it represents a calculated retreat from the message that isolation and alienation themselves create the attitudes that inform both enemy camps. Isolation and alienation are all that Cathy winds up with, and for the film to sentimentalize this is to arrive at a tautological stalemate.
Some of the particulars of the film’s handling of the lunatic right seem needlessly farfetched — which is not to say that they don’t necessarily have real-life counterparts, only that the film fails to flesh them out persuasively — but the overall drift is chillingly plausible, at least for someone like myself who grew up in the deep south and who assumes that rabid xenophobia is still operative in this country regardless of how little the media choose to focus on it. It’s easy to fault Costa-Gavras and Joe Eszterhas for not fully realizing either the execution or the implications of their corrosive scenario; but their tackling it at all is reason for some gratitude.