A shy London hairdresser (Jesse Birdsall), still a virgin at 31, finds himself getting involved with three very different women (Lynn Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter, and Jane Horrocks) in a very pleasant romantic comedy directed by Randal Kleiser. Adapted by Elizabeth Jane Howard from her own novel, the film seems modeled in part on such 60s “swinging London” films as Georgy Girl and Morgan!–as is suggested by the use of several actors associated with that period (Shirley Anne Field, Brian Pringle, Pat Heywood, and Nan Munro) and an overall ebullience in plot and performances. With Peter Cook and John Gielgud. (Golf Glen, Water Tower, Ridge, Oakbrook)
From the Chicago Reader (May 19, 1989). — J.R.
WHO KILLED VINCENT CHIN?
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Christine Choy.
Item: The December 22, 1941, issue of Life magazine features a two-page spread headlined “How to Tell Japs From the Chinese: Angry Citizens Victimize Allies With Emotional Outburst at Enemy.” It begins: “In the first discharge of emotions touched off by the Japanese assaults on their nation, U.S. citizens have been demonstrating a distressing ignorance on the delicate question of how to tell a Chinese from a Jap. Innocent victims in cities all over the country are many of the 75,000 U.S. Chinese whose homeland is our stanch ally. So serious were the consequences threatened, that the Chinese consulates last week prepared to tag their nationals with identification buttons. To dispel some of this confusion, Life here adduces a rule-of-thumb from the anthropometric conformations that distinguish friendly Chinese from enemy alien Japs.” Around this text and the two paragraphs that follow are four large photographs with inscriptions that attempt to spell out distinguishing characteristics of Chinese and Japanese physiognomies and body types.
Item: In 1982 in Highland Park, Michigan, Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese auto engineer, got into a fight with Ronald Ebens, a somewhat older Caucasian autoworker, in a topless bar called the Fancy Pants. According to witnesses, the fight was precipitated by Ebens’s remark: “It’s because of you little motherfuckers that we’re out of work” — which implied that he thought Chin was Japanese and therefore somehow responsible for the massive layoffs in Detroit brought about by the influx of Japanese cars. (At the time of the incident, there was about 17 percent unemployment in Detroit, and local media showed some irate locals smashing Japanese cars with sledgehammers.) Outside the Fancy Pants, Ebens took a baseball bat out of his car and, accompanied by his stepson Michael Nitz (who was also involved in the barroom brawl), chased after Chin and beat him repeatedly; Chin, who was to have been married within the week, was taken to the hospital, where he died four days later.
This incident forms the core of Who Killed Vincent Chin?, a documentary cosigned by director Christine Choy and producer and interviewer Renee Tajima that was recently nominated for an Academy Award. But the complex aftermath of the murder is equally important to the film’s focus. Originally brought to trial for second-degree murder, Ebens and Nitz managed to get their charges reduced to manslaughter (which eliminated the necessity of a jury trial), and were then let off with three years’ probation and a $3,000 fine. After much heated protest in the Asian-American community, the case was appealed in federal court as a civil rights case, where a jury of seven women and five men acquitted Nitz but found Ebens guilty; he was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Then a federal appeals court ordered a new trial because of “trial errors,” and at a second trial held in Cincinnati, nine men and three women found Ebens not guilty on both counts.
In many respects, it’s a fascinating and disturbing case, and Choy and Tajima’s film certainly gives a great deal of attention to what is fascinating and disturbing about it. What it doesn’t do, however, is leave us with an account of the whole affair that is satisfying rather than merely suggestive. While the film leaves no doubt that Vincent Chin was brutally murdered for at least partially racial reasons, and that his killer got off virtually scot-free, it throws up countless questions about the legal proceedings and then leaves them hanging.
This lack of clarity and resolution partly stems from the film’s formal structure, which is also paradoxically part of its strength. Beginning like a TV teaser, the film rapidly cuts from interviews to clips of various TV news shows (including subtitled Japanese coverage of the events) and back again, creating a fragmented, almost scattershot mosaic construction that only gradually makes the basic facts of the case clear to us.
Deliberately designed to resemble the disorienting mix produced by switching TV channels, the film certainly casts its net wide — Ebens himself is accorded at least as much interview footage as Vincent Chin’s mother, Lily, and Helen Zia, who often serves as spokesperson for the Asian-American protests — but the fish caught in this net are generally wriggling so fast that we can’t concentrate on them for any extended length of time.
The advantage of this approach is that it brings to the fore the bewilderingly incomplete methods of most TV news reports — becoming, in effect, a comment on media coverage as well as an account of the murder case. (Unlike the old Hollywood cliche showing various overlapping newspapers with blaring headlines reporting the same event, this cacophony offers no hint of consensus.) The disadvantage of the approach is that it leaves so many unanswered questions — such as what the “errors” were in the first federal trial, and precisely what the two charges were in the second — that it’s not possible to follow the chronology of events as closely as we’d like to.
Some (if not all) of this confusion may simply be a reflection of what’s emphasized and ignored in the trials themselves. About two years ago, I attended a trial in Santa Barbara involving what appeared to me to be a racial incident: a black youth got into a scuffle with some rowdy white college jocks in a McDonald’s, and immediately afterward took a machete out of his car and slashed one of the boys in the arm. According to the black youth, who was being defended by a court appointee (and who was subsequently given a fairly stiff sentence), the fight was provoked by a racist epithet, which all the white boys present denied was ever spoken (as vehemently, I should add, as Ebens and his family, friends, and defense attorney deny that Ebens ever made a racial remark).
In determining the truth or falsity of this claim, a great deal of attention was paid to the mood and behavior of the college kids that night, but the choices made about what to concentrate on — by both the prosecution and the defense (who claimed that the incident was a racial one) — were astonishing. Before heading for the McDonald’s, the college kids had all watched a movie together on video; while it was of enormous interest in the courtroom what each of these boys ordered to eat — how many hamburgers or cheeseburgers, whether they ordered french fries or milkshakes or sodas (and if so, what kind of milkshakes or sodas) — no one present had the slightest interest in what movie the boys had just seen.
We’re not shown any of the three trials that took place in the Vincent Chin case, although it’s strongly implied by one commentator that the not guilty verdict in Cincinnati was largely determined by the conservative cast of that city and its remoteness from the racial conflicts in Detroit five years earlier. What the film does manage to establish, however, which replicates the overall impression I had in that Santa Barbara courtroom, is that a detailed sense of what actually happened at the Fancy Pants that night is irretrievable — not because memories are too vague and unreliable, but because too many preexisting assumptions get in the way of objective recollection. To put it as bluntly as possible, no one really wants to know exactly what happened, because the significations are too highly charged to make an objective description of events desirable.
Comparable questions were recently raised by the much slicker and artier Errol Morris film The Thin Blue Line, which exposed another case of legal injustice. If the Morris film managed to garner some extra press — through both its failure to get an Oscar nomination and its eventual (and more important) success in freeing a man wrongly convicted of a murder — it raised similar (and similarly ignored) questions about the importance given to general issues over the clarification of facts in the case.
On the other hand, it might be argued that Choy and Tajima are not interested in giving us the comforting sense of closure and (false) knowledge that comes with the average news story, or even with conventional agitprop. While the forces represented in the film tend to be polarized around separate interpretations of what happened, the film is explicitly not trying to segregate the truth along racial lines, and neither the implied audience of this film nor its major spokespeople are defined strictly according to race. (Although the filmmakers are of Chinese and Japanese descent — filmmaker and cinematographer Choy was born in Shanghai, and Chicagoan Tajima is currently a film critic for the Village Voice — the film does not ask to be read as an “Asian” statement.) As we simultaneously witness a denial of racial motives behind the crime and an exposure of racial attitudes on every level, we gradually come to realize that the film’s title is less literal than it may first appear — that the who of the title (as well as the implied what) leads to questions that eventually take in the society as a whole, and therefore address the entirety of the film’s possible audience.
The murky twists and byways of Ebens’s comments about American Citizens for Justice (the organization that eventually brought the case to the federal courts) and then about Asian Americans in general give one vivid insight into the process of confused thinking about race, even if the content of what he’s saying is so elusive that it winds up as near-gibberish: “I personally think that a lot of them used it for their own vehicle just to get ahead. Secondly, they used it to, you know, promote the Asia-America [sic] and their alleged plight in this country — which I am not aware of, that they have a plight, because I know very few Asians — very few — and the ones that I do know have always been really nice people. In fact, my daughter helped, or used to help, an Asian kid at school.”
While Who Killed Vincent Chin? is concerned with the profound separations between the Caucasian and Asian communities of Detroit, these separations are contested as well as dramatized by the dialectical editing style, which tends to give us contrasting interpretations of the same data back to back. (Particular mileage is gotten out of juxtaposing Ebens and Chin’s mother responding separately to the same issues.) In this respect, a movie about alienation manages to resist alienation itself — forging links between elements that conventional media contrive to keep apart.
This film represented Alain Resnais’ comeback in 1974 after five years’ absence (precipitated by the commercial failure of Je t’aime, je t’aime), and like many of his other features, it looks better now than it did when it was first released. Scripted by Jorge Semprun (La guerre est finie, Z), it tells the true story of a notorious international financier (Jean-Paul Belmondo) whose ruin in 1933 led to a major political scandal and his own death. While the script isn’t always as lucid as it wants to be–some attempts to counterpoint Stavisky’s destiny with that of Leon Trotsky who was given political asylum in France during the time of the events covered) appear a bit forced–the power of Resnais’ evocative editing is as strong as ever. Using a gorgeous original score by Stephen Sondheim, elegant sets and locations, and beautiful color cinematography by Sacha Vierny, Resnais successfully models his liquid, bittersweet style here on Lubitsch, and the shimmering, romantic images and rhythms are often spellbinding and haunting. With Anny Duperey, Charles Boyer (in what may be his last great screen performance), Michel Lonsdale, Francois Perier, Claude Rich, and, in an early cameo, Gerard Depardieu. (Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday and Saturday, May 12 and 13, 7:30, and Sunday, May 14, 7:00, 281-4114)
From the Chicago Reader (May 5, 1989). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Michael Caton-Jones
Written by Michael Thomas
With John Hurt, Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, Bridget Fonda, Ian McKellen, Leslie Phillips, Britt Ekland, Daniel Massey, Roland Gift, and Jeroen Krabbe.
After applauding some of the forthright aspects of High Hopes and other recent English movies in this space two weeks ago, I’m happy to find my generalizations confirmed by a new English docudrama on the John Profumo-Christine Keeler sex scandal of 30 years back. Scandal, the first movie made on this subject, is good, clean, licentious fun.
While the titillating aspects of the story automatically place the film under the general rubric of “trash,” Scandal gleefully embraces its category without being unduly dumb or irresponsible about it. Starting off with an evocative period montage of the late 50s and early 60s, accompanied by the strains of Frank Sinatra’s recording of “Witchcraft,” the movie proceeds to unravel its complex narrative with a kind of polish that excludes any pretense of telling the “whole” story. (The project started out as a five-hour miniseries, and got boiled down to a feature after the BBC decided not to participate, but it is questionable whether the entire story could have been told even at miniseries length.) As a result of the film’s deliberate incompleteness, we can’t entirely account for all the motivations of the two leading characters — Dr. Stephen Ward (John Hurt) and Christine Keeler (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer), neither of whom, one should note, was a national figure before the scandal broke — and this works to the film’s advantage by giving the spectator some interpretive leeway in understanding just what happened.
As far as the press was concerned, what happened in 1963 was that Christine Keeler sold a story to the Sunday Pictorial for 1,000 pounds stating that she had been sleeping with John Profumo, the British war secretary, as well as Eugene Ivanov, a Soviet naval attaché who was revealed as a possible spy. As revelation followed revelation, the popular British press had a field day; Profumo resigned from his post (he first denied the affair, then was proved guilty), and Stephen Ward — an osteopath and portrait artist of the rich and famous who had lived with Keeler, introduced her to both Profumo and Ivanov, and used her as an informant to help British intelligence — found himself being vilified as a pimp and abandoned by all his highly placed friends in the government, which ultimately drove him to suicide. Before the year was over, Harold Macmillan had stepped down as prime minister (ostensibly for reasons of health), and the Conservative government was defeated in the next year’s election, ushering in a 15-year period of Labor Party domination.
Although it’s tempting to try to link the Profumo affair to the recent trial by press of Gary Hart (among others), the effect of politicians’ sexual behavior on their political careers has had very different and nonsynchronous histories in England and the U.S. As English writer Graham Fuller points out in the current Film Comment, Grover Cleveland could admit to having fathered an illegitimate child in 1884 and still be elected president, but ever since Ted Kennedy’s debacle at Chappaquiddick, the American media and public have been less forgiving about tarnished public profiles. By contrast, Cecil Parkinson’s adulterous affair with a secretary who became pregnant, which ejected him from England’s Department of Trade and Industry in 1983, didn’t keep him from being named as Margaret Thatcher’s energy secretary last year.
One conclusion that might be drawn from the fickle attitudes of the public about such behavior in both countries is that public responses to the private lives of government officials are seldom consistent or logical but are rather reflexes to the political moods of individual historical moments. Presumably, the same public that voted in a Conservative government licked its chops when the yellow press helped to cause that government’s collapse. A similar sort of capriciousness can be seen in the American public’s indifference to Watergate before Richard Nixon’s re-election and its obsession with Watergate afterward — a return of the repressed that is no less apparent in this country’s shifting tastes in clothes, politics, movies, erotic and cultural fashions, and pleasure itself.
It’s to the credit of Scandal that it treats the Profumo affair as a manifestation of its own period rather than as a timeless parable or a story with a particular moral. Much of the movie is about the sheer elation of the energies that were set loose in the early 60s, and the grim aftermath of this elation for some of the individuals involved is treated refreshingly neither as poetic justice nor as divine retribution — the standard Hollywood forms of comeuppance — but simply as what happened.
The osteopath-artist Stephen Ward, a central character in the story as it’s told here, remains in some ways the most ambiguous and mysterious figure in the scandal. The son of a clergyman — one of the traits that he interestingly shares with John Hurt, the actor who plays him — he studied medicine in the U.S., then returned to England to set up practice in the seaside resort of Torquay. Stationed in India during World War II, he became a member of the local jet set, but was hospitalized toward the end of the war for some sort of nervous collapse. Back in England, he joined a London clinic and became known for his famous clients, the first of whom was Averell Harriman (who was then U.S. ambassador to Britain); before long, he established his own practice, where his patients included Winston Churchill, J. Paul Getty, Ava Gardner, and Elizabeth Taylor. He was also connected with the British royalty, and enjoyed the use of a weekend cottage on Lord and Lady Astor’s Cliveden estate.
Scandal’s story more or less begins when Ward meets Christine Keeler in 1959 at Murray’s Cabaret Club, where she is working as a show girl, and actively pursues her. Taking her under his guidance a la Pygmalion and comparing her to a racehorse (which, by implication, he would like to train), he convinces her to revert to her natural hair color (from bleached blond to brunette), removes her false eyelashes, takes her shopping, installs her in his flat, and begins to introduce her to some of his classy friends — without showing any interest in having sex with her. Apparently voyeuristic in his attraction to her, he delights in initiating her in some of the sexual games enjoyed by his set, such as planned orgies, and then chatting with her about them afterward. (Ward himself is a participant in these orgies, but we don’t get a very clear sense of how he behaves in them.) When Christy befriends another show girl named Mandy Rice-Davies (Bridget Fonda), the latter moves into Ward’s flat and social circle as well, and both women work as models as well as semicourtesans, accepting cash gifts from their wealthy dates.
Approached by British intelligence and asked to report on his Soviet friend Eugene Ivanov (played by Dutch actor Jeroen Krabbe), whom the intelligence agents suspect of espionage, Ward readily agrees, and he encourages Christy to get involved with Ivanov so that he can get more information that way. A lover of gossip and intrigue, Ward also is instrumental in getting Christy acquainted with war secretary John Profumo (Ian McKellen) at the same time, but after an affair between Keeler and Profumo develops, Ward’s reputation as a big talker makes their liaison too high a risk, and Profumo asks her to either move out of Ward’s flat or break off their affair. Although Keeler insists that Ward isn’t her boyfriend, she insists on remaining where she is.
All these intrigues eventually become public in late 1962, after two of Keeler’s less well-to-do lovers, both of them West Indian, get into a knife fight, and one of them turns up outside Ward’s flat with a gun. Ward, angry at this ugly exposure, asks Christy to move out, and she retaliates by selling both her story and a letter from Profumo to the Sunday Pictorial.
Given all this trashy material (and more), the movie keeps itself bracingly free of easy moralism and glib conclusions; simply put, there are no villains in sight, and no pure heroes either. One of the principal virtues of Michael Thomas’s script and Michael Caton-Jones’s direction is that the overall view presented is balanced without ever seeming static. This is Caton-Jones’s first feature, but he already seems to function like a pro. He does indulge in some fancy uses of slow-motion and close-ups — which culminate in a gigantic image of Ward’s last unfinished cigarette crashing to the floor — but generally he seems to know that splashy effects of this kind don’t increase our knowledge of the characters or situations; they only help to dramatize the unanswered questions or heighten the erotic charge of certain moments.
Even Ward, who winds up as the major victim and scapegoat — and, thanks to the effectiveness of Hurt’s performance, is treated with a great deal of sympathy and depth — is spared a one-sided treatment; the casual racism that he reveals in a reference to “jungle bunnies” when he asks Keeler to move out of his flat is certainly not made to seem either exemplary or urbane. In keeping with the same principle, the unconventional love story between Ward and Keeler that serves as the movie’s central focus is neither romanticized nor deromanticized; it isn’t precisely defined or digested for us, so we have to make up our own minds about it — or, better yet, suspend judgment altogether.
On the other hand, it would be wrong to claim that Scandal presents its story without any pronounced moral biases. On the contrary, it is unambiguously positive and celebratory in its treatment of the characters’ carnality, hedonism, and tolerance of kinkiness (a nude guest serving as waiter at an orgiastic cocktail party bears a sign reading, “Please beat me if I fail to satisfy,” and Mandy obliges by slapping his offscreen penis with a rose). One would be hard put to find any recent American mainstream movie as guiltless and as accepting about such matters. Horror of horrors, this movie doesn’t even condemn the casual prostitution of Keeler and Rice-Davies, but makes it look like fun for all the parties involved.
(Apparently the orgiastic cocktail party was too much fun in its original English form to qualify for an R rating in this country, so some footage of straight screwing in this scene was cut from American prints. Presumably if this sequence had a higher moral tone in the American vein — say, a few knife slashings instead of guiltless intercourse — it wouldn’t have been threatened with an X.)
(Another aside: Joe Boyd, one of Scandal’s executive producers, has pointed out that in 1961, the same year that Keeler was carrying on simultaneous affairs with Ivanov and Profumo, the queen’s counselor who was to prosecute Ward two years later for pimping — groundlessly, as it turned out — was prosecuting the publishers of [and successfully banning] Lady Chatterley’s Lover, asking the jury if they would want their servants to read such a book.)
Insofar as “yellow journalism” serves on occasion as an indirect political forum for the working class, the conflation of class revenge with sexual outrage undoubtedly fueled the Profumo scandal that followed, and the fact that Ward came from the middle class probably had as much to do with his abandonment by his wealthy friends as the sexual predilections that they surreptitiously shared with him. In effect, the closing of ranks in “gutter” journalism and the upper classes alike left a social climber like Ward out in the cold, without a toehold in either realm. But this is only one possible theory about the volatile cocktail of elements that Scandal deals with; one of the strengths of the movie as a whole is that it encourages us to reach our own conclusions.
Directed by Hugh Hudson (Chariots of Fire, Greystoke), this film about a troubled youth (Adam Horovitz) who is sent to a psychiatric hospital for middle-class teenagers, where he gradually grows to trust a caring doctor (Donald Sutherland), contains many echoes of liberal, socially conscious movies of the 50s and early 60s, such as Rebel Without a Cause and The Mark. Written (by Michael Weller), directed, and acted with some tenderness and sensitivity, it doesn’t always live up to its models, but is an intelligent and thoughtful treatment of its subject on many levels–in its grasp of adolescent confusions, troubled family situations, institutional cynicism and expediency, and the fallibility of even exceptional doctors. With Dan Bloomfield, Amy Locane, Kevin Tighe, and Celia Weston. (Ford City East, Golf Glen, Orland Square, Chicago Ridge, Oakbrook Center, Ridge, Water Tower, Woodfield, Forest Park, Webster Place, Norridge, Hyde Park, Old Orchard)