Perhaps the most neglected of all the major French directors, at least in the U.S., Jean Gremillon (1901-1959) was a figure of such versatility that it’s difficult to make generalizations about his work. (One can, however, speak about its close attention to sound and rhythm–he started out as a musician–and its frequent focus on class divisions.) White Shanks (Pattes blanches), made in 1949, is not one of his very best efforts–I prefer Lumiere d’ete (1943) and Le ciel est a vous (1944). But this moody melodrama of adultery set on the Normandy coast is still full of punch and fascination, and shouldn’t be missed by anyone with a taste for the classic French cinema. Coscripted by Jean Anouilh (who originally intended to direct), it’s a noirish tale about a promiscuous flirt from the city (Suzy Delair) who marries a local tavern keeper and becomes involved with a plotting local malcontent (Michel Bouquet) and a faded aristocrat (Paul Bernard), nicknamed “White Shanks” because of his spats, who is the target of a revenge plot. A sensitive maid with a hunchback who loves the aristocrat rounds out this odd quintet, who are regarded with a caustic compassion that recalls Stroheim. The lovely camera work is by Philippe Agostini, and the great Leon Barsacq is in charge of the sets. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, August 25, 7:45, and Sunday, August 27, 4:15, 443-3737)
SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Steven Soderbergh
With Andie MacDowell, James Spader, Laura San Giacomo, and Peter Gallagher.
As its lowercase title suggests, sex, lies, and videotape is an example of lowercase filmmaking: lean, economical, relatively unpretentious (or at least pretentiously unpretentious), and purposefully small-scale. Its having walked off with the Cannes film festival’s Palme d’Or–making first-time writer-director Steven Soderbergh at 26 the youngest filmmaker ever to win that prize–saddles it with more of a reputation than it can comfortably live up to. In a time of relative drought, it’s certainly a small oasis, but the attention it’s been getting befits something closer to a breakthrough geyser.
All the fuss may be a sign of panic over more than just movies. Sexual repression is reflected in various ways in current pictures, but this is the only one that deals with it forthrightly as its central subject–specifically, as the main preoccupation of its two leading characters–and broaches sexual problems such as impotence and frigidity in the bargain. I haven’t heard such giddy, unnatural-sounding laughter in a movie theater since The Decline of the American Empire hit the art-house circuit a few years ago–the same sort of forced, hyped-up hilarity at the mere mention of words like “fucking” and “penis” and “getting off.” This makes it only that much harder to discuss a movie like Soderbergh’s, which tries to be level-headed and truthful about such matters.
It seems more a matter of chance than design, but sex, lies, and videotape makes its appearance when the national climate is shot through with maniacal puritanism. (This climate is beautifully parodied by Philip Roth’s impersonation of George Bush in the August 12 issue of the New York Review of Books. Roth’s Bush submits a constitutional amendment to Congress reading, “Neither menstruation nor masturbation shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction,” because “Menstruation is murder and masturbation, of course, is worse.”) Soderbergh, however, is not trying to comment on such a climate. Although he is concerned with therapy and healing, the movie itself is far too involved in the localized causes and effects of repression to have anything to say about it other than how it impinges on the lives of his four characters. This is plenty for any small-scale movie to tackle, and I don’t fault the film for shirking the subject’s wider and more social implications. But I am suggesting that the social climate the film doesn’t deal with is having an effect on how it’s being received, by audiences as well as critics.
The film focuses virtually all of its attention on four characters living in Baton Rouge, and although religion per se plays no discernible role in the plot, I don’t think it’s stretching things to say that two of these characters are treated by the movie as sanctified, while the other two are profane. The two sanctified characters, Graham (James Spader) and Ann (Andie MacDowell), are shown together at both the beginning and end of the film. At the beginning, they still haven’t met, but the film contrives to link their destinies: shots of Graham driving to Baton Rouge (returning, as we shortly discover, after a nine-year absence) are accompanied by the off-screen voice of Ann speaking to her therapist, and then scenes of these two supposedly separate characters and story lines are intercut.
Graham’s former roommate and frat brother is Ann’s husband, John (Peter Gallagher), a junior partner in a law firm whom we meet shortly afterward. Before long, we see him sneak out to see the other profane character, Ann’s sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), with whom he’s having a torrid clandestine affair.
Not long after John arrives at Cynthia’s house, Graham arrives at John and Ann’s house and meets Ann for the first time. The two profane characters and the two sanctified characters have now been paired off, and thanks to the economy of Soderbergh’s script, by the time we’ve arrived at this juncture we already know something about all four characters.
Around the same time that John is greeting Cynthia, for instance (with a potted plant he has brought from his office as a gift), Ann is telling her therapist that she doesn’t like sex much, and that lately she hasn’t wanted her husband to touch her. (Earlier, around the same time we see Graham stop at a filling station to shave and change his clothes in the men’s room, her therapist–who has a flat, nasal voice exactly like Johnny Carson’s–has pointed out that she tends to “obsess” on things that she can do nothing about.) When the therapist asks Ann if she masturbates, we see a close-up of her laughing and blushing, finally admitting that she tried it once but “it just seems so stupid”; she started wondering whether her dead grandfather was watching her. We also learn that Graham is coming to stay with her and John while he finds a place to live, and she’s not thrilled about having a guest. As for John and Cynthia, it’s established at the outset that he’s a self-contented yuppie (his tie and suspenders give him away at once) and that she despises Ann, taking pleasure in the fact that her sister is “a lousy lay.”
A bit further on, we discover that Graham is impotent and that he has a collection of videotapes of interviews with women about their sexual experiences, and that he “gets off” on watching these tapes. Between all four characters, an intricate series of rhyming traits is established, and much of the pleasure in Soderbergh’s script comes from the various ways these rhymes lock into place: Ann’s frigidity and Graham’s impotence; Ann and Cynthia’s mutual enmity (particularly regarding Ann’s prudishness and Cynthia’s brazen sexuality); John and Ann’s upper-crust life and material concerns; Cynthia and Graham’s relative downscale life-styles and attitudes (she works as a bartender and paints on the side; he has a minimum of possessions, and lives simply off his savings; both qualify as independent spirits); John and Cynthia’s mutual enjoyment of sex and mutual deception of Ann; Graham and Ann’s mutual hatred for liars.
As for the sanctity of Ann and Graham, a few more details are worth noting. Both characters have milk-white complexions (in contrast to John and Cynthia, who are relatively swarthy). Ann wears a crucifix on a necklace, which remains prominent throughout much of the film, and during dinner on the night of Graham’s arrival, John remarks to Ann–as an indication of his former friend’s weirdness–that “he used to direct his own chapel services.” It’s also significant that, before he finds an apartment, Graham explains that he likes having only one key (to his car) because “It’s clean,” and that the relative spareness of his apartment after he moves in suggests a certain monastic existence. Ann, on the other hand, as a compulsive housekeeper, is shown to have a fetish for cleanliness, which eventually leads to her discovery of John and Cynthia’s affair.
Ann and Graham’s hatred of liars and their sexual inhibitions are shown to be intimately interconnected; their eventual working out (or working through) of their sexual problems, which is implied without being shown, is predicated on their discovery of the truths about their own lives. The medium for this discovery proves to be interviews on video, which bring about revelations for all four of the characters (it would be difficult to say any more without giving away the plot), and the film positions these interviews in such a way that they explicitly rhyme with Ann’s sessions with her therapist. (Both interview forms are explicitly confessional, which suggests still another religious undertone to the plot and characters.)
There’s no doubt that the film shows a lot of promise. The dialogue is sharp and functional, the lead actors are all good, and the direction is unusually astute about concentrating our attention on the actors and what they say and not distracting us.
But in spite of these virtues, and a gift for story telling that utilizes some effective sound and image overlaps (which are especially prominent in the beginning of the film), Soderbergh’s mise en scene is not especially new or inventive. Apart from a vertically tilted shot of John and Cynthia resting in bed after an (unseen) heavy-duty bout of lovemaking, his use of framing is strictly conventional, while his reliance on close-ups, which makes perfect sense for the story he is telling, isn’t really orchestrated with the sense of dynamics that one would find in the work of a more mature director. Similarly, his camera movements are nicely plotted in relation to the dialogue and action without being stylistically distinctive. In short, Soderbergh’s directorial strengths and predilections are basically those of a good TV director–which is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but not the sort of equipment that is likely to change the face of cinema, at least at this stage of the game.
What’s most refreshing about sex, lies, and videotape in relation to other recent commercial movies is the obvious urgency of its theme for its writer-director, and his seriousness about pursuing it. Soderbergh has already suggested in interviews certain personal (if not directly autobiographical) links with his material, and it’s admirable that he has approached this material on his own terms rather than following the now-standard practice of fledgling directors of modeling their major concepts on those of well-known pictures.
In point of fact, the story that Soderbergh has to tell isn’t as new as he probably thinks it is; the use of video as a framing and distancing device is a veritable standby of self-reflexive cinema, particularly in relation to sex, and has been since the 60s (although film-within-film has often been used instead of video to serve an identical function). The same could be said of the film’s contrast between talking about sex and sex itself–a vein that has already been mined pretty thoroughly by Jean-Luc Godard, among many others. The point is that Soderbergh has rediscovered these devices for his own purposes rather than used them to indicate what other movies he’s seen. (Judging again from the interviews he’s given, his own cinematic touchstones–Carnal Knowledge, The Last Picture Show, and Five Easy Pieces–seem to have more to do with his age than with his aesthetics. And it appears that the superficial resemblance of his style to Eric Rohmer’s is purely coincidental.)
The personal side of his film also leads to certain limitations–such as the undigested marginalia that clutter the edges of certain scenes (the books in Graham’s apartment, the photos on his and Cynthia’s walls, Cynthia’s paintings, the gifts of various plants), rattling around loosely like random objects rather than adhering meaningfully to the characters’ identities or concerns, at least as the movie otherwise defines them. Another problem is the lack of sympathy for (which amounts to a lack of curiosity about) John, who is conceived throughout as a movie stereotype–the Gig Young part in a Hollywood comedy of the 50s or 60s, even down to his eventual professional comeuppance. Cynthia is accorded a bit more depth and flexibility, and maybe this is part of Soderbergh’s point: the sex that she and John enjoy is partly motivated by their mutual hatred of Ann, but only Cynthia seems to be aware of this fact.
Stepping outside the film’s framework for a moment, one might also question whether the film’s implicit puritanism–which has so much to do with the narrative tension and eventual moral reckonings, not to mention the film’s overall and widespread appeal–doesn’t finally represent a separate limitation of its own. A morality play about sexual haves and have-nots, it offers a lot of satisfaction to everyone who feels sexually deprived and/or maladjusted, which in this day and age undoubtedly includes most of the audience. But the movie’s reticence about the ultimate sexual and therapeutic victory of the have-nots–a graceful and tactful ellipsis that makes it all seem pretty transcendental and theoretical rather than material or sensual–leaves me wanting something more.
Two hippies from the 60s (Eric Roberts and Cheech Marin) emerge from a Central American jungle, where they’ve been smoking dope and hiding from the feds, come to New York, and discover what the U.S. in 1989 is all about. Aaron Russo (Bette Midler’s former manager) and David Greenwalt codirected this comedy from a script by Neil Levy and Richard LaGravenese; Julie Hagerty and Robert Carradine play the heroes’ now-yuppified friends who are gradually inspired to return to their former values. As disheveled in some ways as its leading characters are, this movie is still something of a rarity: a sincere, somewhat nuanced, relatively uncliched, and actually judicious look at both the 60s and 80s and what they mean in relation to each other. A far cry from the more reductive treatment of these issues in various sitcoms, this movie is genuinely interested in the question of what happened to 60s ethics, and in spite of an occasionally awkward plot that weaves in and out of comedy, it manages to come up with a few answers. The costars include Louise Lasser, Cindy Williams, Cliff De Young, Andrea Martin, and Buck Henry; the latter two are especially funny in the one extended sequence in which they appear. (Lincoln Village, Oakbrook Center, Chestnut Station, Evanston, Norridge, Webster Place, Deerbrook, Harlem-Cermak, Bel-Air Drive-In)
From the August 18, 1989 Chicago Reader; this piece is also reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema. — J.R.
DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES
Directed and written by Terence Davies
With Freda Dowie, Pete Postlethwaite, Angela Walsh, Dean Williams, Lorraine Ashbourne, Debi Jones, Michael Starke, and Vincent Maguire.
An autobiographical film about growing up in a Catholic working-class family in Liverpool in the 40s and 50s. Achronological glimpses of a traumatic family life, with particular emphasis on a funeral and two weddings. A collection of radio shows and nostalgic songs sung at parties and pub gatherings. A highly condensed, triple-distilled family album of faces and feelings organized around a few key locations. A series of emotional and visceral jolts whose brute power and intensity could not be conveyed by a conventional linear story. A seamless block of passionate memories defined by the beauty and terror of the everyday.
The problem with all these descriptions of Distant Voices, Still Lives is that though each is partially accurate, they only dance around the periphery of what is a primal experience; that they represent the shards of my attempts to describe the essence of a masterpiece that reinvents filmgoing itself. I saw it twice at the Toronto film festival last September, and twice again earlier this month, and the inadequacy of my efforts is largely due to the fact that great films have a way of imposing their own laws and definitions that ordinary descriptions can’t reach.
Take the word “autobiographical,” for instance, which usually implies that the author is the central character. Director Terence Davies (who was born in 1945) doesn’t represent himself in the film at all, and while I’m told that he was the youngest in a family of nine children, the family in the film has only two daughters and a son. (On the other hand, the photograph of the father on the living room wall — a pivotal reference point — is a photograph of Davies’s own father, not of the actor who plays him.) Davies’s only previous film work, which I haven’t seen, is a trilogy in black and white, also described as autobiographical, made between the early 70s and the early 80s, whose separate parts are called Children, Madonna and Child, and Death and Transfiguration. A friend who has seen this trilogy says that Davies himself is the central character, but that character dies at the end of the third part, so obviously it isn’t strictly autobiography either. (Davies also has written one novel, Hallelujah Now, published in 1984.)
Or consider the word “achronological.” The emphasis of emotional continuity over narrative continuity, the hallmark of several films directed by Alain Resnais (including Hiroshima, mon amour, Last Year at Marienbad, Je t’aime, je t’aime, and Providence), is certainly present here, but at the same time the overall film is structured around a certain narrative progression. The first part, “Distant Voices,” pivots around the funeral of the father (Pete Postlethwaite) and the wedding of the older sister, Eileen (Angela Walsh), both in the early 50s. It includes memories of an air raid during World War II (in an underground shelter the father orders the child Eileen to sing something; she responds with the “Beer Barrel Polka” and is gradually joined by all the others), and ends with the birth and baptism of Eileen’s first child. The second part, “Still Lives,” carries us through the wedding of the younger sister, Maisie (Lorraine Ashbourne), and ends with the wedding of Tony (Dean Williams), the youngest of the three siblings.
The film’s two parts — both produced by the British Film Institute in conjunction with England’s Channel Four — are actually two separate films from a production standpoint. “Distant Voices” was shot over four weeks (in London and Liverpool) in the fall of 1985, and “Still Lives” was shot over four weeks exactly two years later; the aging of the cast during the interim is often visible, and adds appreciably to the overall sense of the passage of time.
Stylistically, the two parts form a coherent whole, apart from the frequent use in the second part of fade-outs to white. Both sections were processed in the lab in a highly distinctive manner that leaves the silver nitrate in the print and desaturates colors in order to emphasize textures; the same process was used in Nineteen Eighty-Four to emphasize grays and blues. Davies employed various filters and gels in order to highlight the browns and implemented this strategy further by using costumes in earth tones.
The film opens with the sound of thunder and rain followed by a radio announcer giving a weather report; then we see a frontal shot of the Davies house in the rain, and the mother (Freda Dowie) opens the front door to collect three bottles of milk. In a closer frontal shot inside the house, she calls up the front stairway to her three children to come down to breakfast (”It’s seven o’clock”), then returns a moment later to call them again. The camera remains fixed on the empty stairway, though we hear the footsteps and voices of the children descending. A woman’s offscreen, unaccompanied voice begins to sing “I Get the Blues When It’s Raining” as the camera slowly moves forward, then turns right and makes a 180-degree pan to the closed front door, and the sound of the rain outside starts up again.
There’s a dissolve to the same front door, now open to clear weather; a hearse slowly pulls up in front (as we soon discover, it’s about ten years later), and another offscreen, unaccompanied female voice begins to sing “There’s a Man Goin’ Round Takin’ Names.” This continues over a dissolve to the children, now grown –standing with their mother as if posing for a portrait in front of the photograph of the father, which the camera slowly approaches as the figures in the foreground step away.
Another shot shows the four remaining members of the family entering the hearse, followed by a dissolve to the same family posing again, in the same spot, this time for Eileen’s wedding. Over the sound of rain again, Eileen says, “I wish me dad was here,” to which Maisie replies, “I don’t.” There’s an offscreen aural flashback to a quarrel between Maisie and her father about her wanting to go to a dance, a quarrel that a moment later we see as well as hear: Maisie is scrubbing the floor in the cellar, and the brief scene ends abruptly with the father tossing coins on the floor and then beating her with a broom.
Nothing in the above summary can convey the weight, the flow, or the impact of these sounds and images; they create a world of their own that is so self-sufficient and distinct from other film experiences that it is impossible to say whether this sequence — or any subsequent ones in the film — is proceeding quickly or slowly. We all know that “real time” and “film time” aren’t the same thing, but the emotional time of recollection that this film works with is so singular that it doesn’t seem to bear much relation to what we ordinarily mean by either of these temporal registers. The film as a whole lasts only 85 minutes, but the density that it conveys is closer to that of a three-hour epic.
English kitchen-sink realism is not a mode for which I have much affection, and while there might be some academic relationship between Distant Voices, Still Lives and such hallmarks of that mode as This Sporting Life, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, A Taste of Honey, and Georgy Girl, I think that such a comparison winds up confusing a lot more than it clarifies. “Technically” speaking, Davies’s film is closer to the avant-garde, and its emotional impact bears more relationship to the films of directors like John Ford, Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, Charlie Chaplin (whose Limelight theme is played by Tony on the harmonica), Kenji Mizoguchi, and Leo McCarey.
It isn’t surprising, however, to learn that Davies loves Hollywood musicals, and that a shot of black umbrellas in the rain in front of a movie theater is included as a specific reference to Singin’ in the Rain, the first film he ever saw. (The same shot pans up to posters advertising Love Is a Many Splendored Thing and Guys and Dolls, and the following shot is a pan across a large audience watching the former — the tearjerking theme song is heard offscreen — that finally settles on the weirdly lit figures of Maisie and Eileen, sobbing uncontrollably.) Though an independent British feature, Distant Voices, Still Lives ultimately harks back to an era in Hollywood filmmaking when strong emotions could be both expressed and elicited more directly, without shame, and the role of music throughout the film remains firmly within this tradition. Indeed, not only the offscreen songs cited above but also countless tunes sung by major characters, at parties and in the local pub, command a surprisingly yet justifiably large amount of the film’s attention.
For this reason, I strongly disagree with several critics who have tried to draw a parallel between Davies’s use of period pop songs and the ironic musical excursions in works by Dennis Potter such as the miniseries The Singing Detective and the movie and series Pennies From Heaven, which uses these touchstones in an antithetical way. Potter treats these songs as lies, and he uses them to point up their falsity in relation to the wretched lives of his characters. The bitterness and defeatism of his vision is not very far from the positions assumed toward soap opera by Douglas Sirk in the 50s and by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in the 70s — a form of cynicism that can only deal with strong emotions and sentimentality by placing them (implicitly in Sirk, explicitly in Fassbinder) inside quotation marks.
Davies, like Chaplin and McCarey, regards strong emotions and sentimentality as authentic and even indispensable tools for understanding and dealing with life. This can be seen in the sequence when Davies’s use of pop music is superficially closest to Potter’s. One of the daughters, as a little girl, is watching her mother, seated on a second-story windowsill, wash the outside of the window. A cut to a reverse angle shows the mother washing the same panes from inside the house, and as the camera slowly tracks toward her, we hear Ella Fitzgerald singing her dreamy version of “Taking a Chance on Love.” The song continues over an abrupt jump cut to a different scene downstairs, in which the father grabs the mother, dragging her and beating her to the floor (out of frame), repeatedly screaming “Shut up!” in response to her cries of pain. Then, as the song continues to the end of the chorus, another jump cut shows the mother’s bruised face in profile, followed by a slow pan down to her bruised arm as she polishes the furniture.
If the same action and the same recording were used in a Potter film, it seems likely that the Ella Fitzgerald record would be heard only after the mother’s beating, and that the mother would lip-synch the lyrics — that is, the ironic truth of the song’s lyrics (”Here I go again . . .”) would be used to ridicule both the pathos of the mother’s predicament and the inadequacy of those lyrics in dealing with that predicament. Davies, on the other hand, clearly loves both the song and his mother, and uses the record as a hymn to her courage and endurance — a hymn that in no way reduces the unbearable harshness of the beating; it allows us to hear the song’s lyrics in an ironic fashion without leading us to feel any contempt for them or for the feelings they represent. It is an extraordinary moment, and without trying to suggest that this comparison necessarily invalidates Potter’s gallows humor when he uses similar materials, I think it can be argued that the sheer rawness and power of the emotions expressed here by Davies are outside of Potter’s range entirely.
In general, Davies’s sympathy and empathy rest more with the women in the film than with the men. This becomes particularly apparent in the pub scenes in “Still Lives,” when the marriages of Eileen, Maisie, and their friend Micky (Debi Jones) register as tragic curtailments of their solidarity with one another and of their innocence, which is represented by many of the songs that they sing together, including not only such white-bread standbys as “Buttons and Bows,” “That Old Gang of Mine,” and “Bye-Bye Blackbird,” but also such ethnic favorites as “My Yiddisher Mama,” “When Irish Eyes Are Smilin’,” and “Brown-Skinned Girls.” Implicitly, the husbands of Eileen, Maisie, and their friends are perceived as somewhat muted variations of the father. (”They’re all the same,” Micky remarks at one point. “When they’re not usin’ the big stick, they’re fartin’.”)
Perhaps for this reason, “Still Lives” doesn’t put the viewer through quite as exhausting an emotional workout as “Distant Voices”; once the father dies, something goes out of the film. This doesn’t prevent the latter half of the film from having peaks and revelations of its own — the protracted leave-taking after Tony’s wedding, which concludes the film, is one of the loveliest sequences I’ve seen anywhere — but the tone is less brittle and searing, more elegiac and stately. I’m reminded that the “climaxes” of two other masterpieces — the ball sequence in The Magnificent Ambersons and Judy Garland’s “The Man That Got Away” number in A Star Is Born – occur quite early in both films, and the remainder of the story in each case is largely composed of thematic recollections of that emotional peak.
We all go to movies for pleasure, and it appears that more people are going to movies this summer than ever before; but how often do we see the people in these movies enjoying themselves? The sheer pleasure shown by the women (and occasionally the men) while they’re performing songs throughout Davies’s film makes these moments into exquisite, sustained epiphanies — stretches of unabashed delight totally unlike the kinds of enjoyment that we can find in recent commercial movies. (I except the Joker getting kicks from his media crimes and mischief in Batman, and a few moments of manic glee experienced by Steve Martin’s character on a Little League field in Parenthood.)
I’m not just thinking of Batman’s melancholia, James Bond’s bitterness, or Indiana Jones’s frustration. I’m also thinking of the catalogs of physical and/or emotional punishment meted out to the characters in nearly all the movies I’ve seen this summer, including The Abyss, Dead Poets Society, The Karate Kid Part III, Lethal Weapon 2, Lock Up, A Nightmare on Elm Street 5, Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, Turner & Hooch, Uncle Buck, Weekend at Bernie’s, and When Harry Met Sally . . .
I’m not trying to deny that the characters in Davies’s film suffer a great deal as well; indeed, one believes in their suffering in a way that one doesn’t believe in the assorted woes of the characters in the other movies. But given the hype about how much “fun” the aforementioned Hollywood features are supposed to be — and the bias on the part of this culture that “art films” like Distant Voices, Still Lives are supposed to be dreary yet vaguely edifying experiences, rather like castor oil — it’s amazing how little real and sustained pleasure there is in the former movies, and how much we’re allowed to see and share with Davies’s people (how much, in fact, we’re able to luxuriate in their fleeting yet ecstatic happiness) in spite of all their grief. The sheer physicality of their songs, their laughter, their smiles, and even on occasion their tears makes one feel grateful to be alive; by contrast, even some of the more exciting moments in Indiana Jones and Batman make one feel like an invalid on sedation getting jolts of electroshock.
There’s nothing intellectual about Davies’s approach to his characters, and no analytical grids are placed over them, although the restriction of the action to a handful of recurring locations — mainly the front of the Davies house, the stairway, the living room, the children’s upstairs bedroom, the stable where the father works, a hospital ward, the local Catholic church, and the nearby pub — circumscribes our glimpses of the characters to only a few special areas, which intensifies the film’s highly elliptical manner. The area just outside the front door of the Davies house, for instance, generally represents a space of provisional escape or respite; it’s where Eileen, Maisie, Micky, and another friend, Jingles (Marie Jelliman) go to smoke cigarettes and chew the fat, where other family members go during parties to get a breath of fresh air, or where, during the day, the mother briefly baby-sits with a grandchild in a baby buggy. The film regards this zone as a kind of privileged site — not quite the world outside the house, but still free of the sense of confinement inside.
It is where we see Tony alone, inexplicably crying after his wedding — one of the many events in the film that seem complete despite their lack of narrative explanations or any framing context. Another is Tony’s apparently going AWOL as a soldier in order to come home and confront his father — an event that begins when Tony smashes the front window with his fist, and ends when he is arrested by MPs and winds up in military prison; we’re never told what occasions this incident, and it’s part of the film’s brilliance that we don’t feel deprived by this lack of information.
Perhaps the film’s unerring sense of what is essential and what is not can be traced partially to its budgetary restrictions — a monetary economy that produces formal economy, an attitude that is reflected in the work of other independent filmmakers (from Mark Rappaport to Peter Greenaway to Jim Jarmusch to Steven Soderbergh) and that most Hollywood filmmakers could learn a lot from. The most extreme instance of this economy yields one of the film’s most striking shots — an overhead shot that shows both Tony and Eileen’s husband George (Vincent Maguire) falling simultaneously in slow motion through adjacent sections of the same skylight. After one of the Toronto screenings, Davies explained that he needed to show that both Tony and George suffer industrial accidents that land them in the hospital (we learn from the subsequent dialogue that George fell from a scaffold, but aren’t given any account of Tony’s accident); he didn’t have enough money to shoot two accidents, so he wound up combining them in a single shot.
Davies’s explanation may sound capricious, but in fact this is far from the only nonrealistic shot in the film; the film’s emotional continuity grants Davies an enormous stylistic freedom, and he takes full advantage of it without ever compromising his vision. Just as many incidents are conveyed without narrative explanation, certain others have a hallucinatory power that suggests that they might represent dreams rather than literal events, and here again, Davies’s grip on his subject is so sure and absolute that no sense of loss or confusion results from this lack of clarification. One of the strongest sequences begins with Eileen sobbing in her husband’s arms in a pub after her wedding and crying, “I want me dad!” A slow pan to the left gradually leads us into darkness, and then, without any apparent break, across a candlelit church interior where the family is praying. This dissolves into a lovely tracking shot moving in the same direction past a row of houses at Christmastime, accompanied by choral music, that finally ends in front of the Davies house, where we see the father dressing the Christmas tree inside. He says good night to his children (it is now years earlier than the scene in the pub), then later checks in on them and sees them all sleeping together in one bed; he says quietly, “God bless, kids,” and attaches a stocking to their bedpost. We next see the whole family praying at their Christmas dinner, and the father, sitting at the head of the table, starts to shake uncontrollably; then, in a single motion, he pulls off the tablecloth and all the dishes with it and yells, “Hey! Clear this up!”
The nightmarish finality and brutality of this shot, so contradictory in relation to everything in the sequence that precedes it, registers as a shock but not precisely as a stylistic rupture. Because everything that we see and hear has the shape and feel of events sifted through memory, there is a chilling congruence between all of the shots and events; and while the source of this particular shot may be either an actual incident or a nightmare, it ultimately makes no difference — the effect and meaning are literally the same.
An equally creepy (if funnier) moment occurs when Maisie and her husband Dave (Michael Starke) are eating dinner together in the house where they live with Maisie’s grandmother. Suddenly the door opens slightly, and a man who looks very much like the father, dead for many years, appears with a candle, turns out the light, says (in a singsong drone), “I switched the light off — I don’t know whether I’m doing right or wrong,” and promptly leaves. When Dave asks Maisie who the hell that was, she explains it’s her Uncle Ted. A moment later, Uncle Ted and his candle are intercepted at the foot of the front stairs by the grandmother, who says chidingly, “Teddy, stop acting soft!” and blows the candle out, leaving us in darkness. It’s a delightfully macabre moment that never fails to get a laugh from the audience.
I haven’t the faintest idea what this scene actually signifies — its meaning is obviously lost somewhere in the dark recesses of the Davies family folklore — but its musical and plastic articulation as a piece of filmmaking is so irreproachably right that it communicates as directly and beautifully as a perfect line of poetry. It is impossible for me to imagine Davies’s film without the scene or to imagine it being realized any differently than it is here. Musically or dramatically speaking, it is nothing more than a brief, frivolous interlude, a moment of comic relief. But the awesome strength of Distant Voices, Still Lives as a whole is that it makes every moment necessary and indelible as well as beautiful. I have every reason to believe that years from now when practically all the other new movies currently playing are long forgotten, it will be remembered and treasured as one of the greatest of all English films.
This was probably my first review of a James Cameron film, published in the August 11, 1989 issue of the Chicago Reader. It’s a review that helps to explain, in any case, some of the reasons why I dislike Avatar. — J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed and written by James Cameron
With Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn, John Bedford Lloyd, Leo Burmester, Todd Graff, and Kimberly Scott.
To satisfy these new cravings of human vanity, the arts have recourse to every species of imposture; and these devices sometimes go so far as to defeat their own purpose. Imitation diamonds are now made which may be easily mistaken for real ones; as soon as the art of fabricating false diamonds shall become so perfect that they cannot be distinguished from real ones, it is probable that both will be abandoned, and become mere pebbles again. — Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)
I happened to see The Abyss with someone who only sees about three Hollywood movies a year. In a way it proved to be an appropriate choice for him, because it’s a veritable survey of big-budget Hollywood filmmaking in the 80s, as cannily up-to-date as the latest issue of Variety. In this case “up-to-date” means a replay of box-office hits of the past 30 or 40 years, which only goes to show how well traveled a terrain the supposedly brand-new has become.
I’m not forgetting that about 40 percent of the movie was shot underwater and that it’s full of state-of-the-art effects. To be sure, some of its technical achievements are rather specialized: the publicity materials boast that The Abyss is “the first motion picture to record scripted dialogue onto tape during underwater filming,” a “first” that reminds me of the invention by one of the Three Stooges of the first ballpoint pen to write under whipped cream. Many of the visual and aural effects of the film, set almost exclusively underwater, do look and sound quite fresh. State-of-the-art clichés, however, are still clichés, and this movie kicks around more than a few of them.
On the basis of James Cameron’s previous features, one could call him a professional recycler, and one of the most cunning in the business. Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) owed a great deal to The Road Warrior (1981) and Blade Runner (1982), while his Aliens (1986), which borrowed from First Blood (1982), was the literal sequel of Alien (1979); his only other “major” writing credit is as cowriter on another sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part Two (1985). (I haven’t seen Cameron’s unsung first feature, made in 1981, but that was a sequel, too — Piranha II: The Spawning.)
To be fair, The Terminator and Aliens weren’t simply copycat remakes but sleekly designed high-tech artifacts hammered out of tried-and-true ingredients, and their singularity lay not in the raw materials but in the ways that Cameron hammered them all together. They won their audiences through fancy special effects, streamlined story telling, expertly executed slam-bang action, and a sharp selection of contemporary ideological touchstones: in The Terminator, it’s the desire to be a machine (and the notion that Arnold Schwarzenegger is the machine that everyone wants to be), and in Aliens, various ideas about motherhood. (Perhaps Cameron’s most brilliant insight into the zeitgeist figures in The Terminator’s clever time-travel plot, which paradoxically views the inevitability of an imminent nuclear holocaust as the prerequisite for the happy ending — a form of gloomy uplift that anticipates the depressive euphoria of Batman.)
The Abyss displays the same virtues as its predecessors. The ideological touchstones this time around are a couple of basic polarities — cold war versus detente (in terms of attitudes rather than actual events) and bossy femininity versus nurturing motherhood — and Cameron manages to juggle and dovetail these two oppositions until they almost begin to seem like two aspects of the same conflict. But here Cameron clones and combines elements from not merely one or two other blockbuster hits, but a whole slew of them, including Alien (again), The Ten Commandments, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the Rambo films, E.T., and several Disney features.
Cameron’s wholesale plunder winds up yielding not one movie but several of them crammed together. It’s a strategy that eventually winds up backfiring; in terms of action and story telling the movie is superior to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Batman, but it gradually loses momentum and conviction in its final stretches. By the end you may be wondering whether the drive to imitate that currently dominates Hollywood may be finally reaching its limits through the law of diminishing returns — a process of devaluation comparable to that outlined by de Tocqueville whereby diamonds are eventually reduced to pebbles.
How this happens can be charted easily enough through the development of the plot, which begins like a cold-war submarine thriller and ends like a science fiction Disney/Spielberg remake of the New Testament, with a love story sandwiched in between. The love story is integrated with the action elements in a number of ingenious ways: the hero’s wedding ring, for instance, which he throws into a chemical toilet in a moment of rage and then retrieves, later prevents him from losing his finger when a hatch slams shut on his hand. And there are certain ways in which Cameron manages to combine both the action and love-story elements with his “religious” theme: the heroine and hero both undergo protracted deaths and resurrections that strengthen their bond; the first of these occurrences is the most successful and suspenseful sequence in the picture.
But the strain of straddling these combos ultimately sends the movie flying off in all directions thematically, and by the final shot, the cold-war thriller has become a distant memory while the religious SF theme has been relegated to the status of purring background music — almost as if God and his heavenly angels have been reduced to a cheering section of cute, furry animals. Just as the movie makes much of the limited forms of communication that can exist between separate underwater vessels, it attempts to capitalize on the various relays that can be set up between separate and autonomous genres; but beyond a certain point, both forms of disassociation lead to delirious incoherence.
Readers who’d rather not know more about the plot are advised to skip the next four paragraphs.
A team of nine underwater oil scouts headed by Bud Brigman (Ed Harris) is sent by the U.S. Navy to the Caribbean after the U.S.S. Montana, a nuclear submarine, has become incapacitated on the craggy edge of the Cayman trough — a drop of over two and a half miles below the ocean floor. Brigman feels that he and his crew are unqualified to carry out the assignment, but he is given no choice in the matter, and the tensions on his vessel (called Deepcore) are intensified by the arrival of his estranged wife Lindsay (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). Lindsay, the brusque and brittle designer of Deepcore, understands its operations better than anyone else, but she is known to Brig and his crew as “the queen bitch of the universe.” Also joining the mission is a four-man team of Navy SEALs headed by Lieutenant Coffey (Michael Biehn), an excitable cold warrior who becomes convinced early on that Soviets are responsible for the Montana’s accident, which occurred about 80 miles off the coast of Cuba; Coffey later emerges as a borderline psycho itching for war.
When Deepcore reaches the Montana, the crew find no survivors. A member of Bud’s team (John Bedford Lloyd) who’s left alone briefly on the Montana sees a mysterious light approach him, and then goes into a coma brought about by too much oxygen; from a nearby submersible (a smaller vessel resembling the space pods in 2001), Lindsay glimpses the same magical light. Meanwhile, a hurricane cuts off all communication between the carrier on the water’s surface and Deepcore, and the resulting turbulence causes Deepcore to crash into the Cayman trough. While making repairs outside the vessel, Lindsay has an encounter with the alien or aliens that projected the mysterious light, but Bud refuses to believe her. They also discover that Coffey has nuclear missiles on Deepcore and is ready to use them, which splits the crew into warring camps.
The alien force enters Deepcore in the form of a large, shimmering, watery snake that changes shape at will and quickly befriends Lindsay and Bud and his crew by replicating the shapes of their faces and their facial expressions (suggesting some of the mimetic patterns established in E.T.). Coffey responds by slamming a hatch and slicing the creature in two, which leads Lindsay to quip, “So raise your hand if you think it was a Russian water tentacle.” After a violent skirmish between Bud and Coffey and a subsequent chase in submersibles (lots of Rambo and Star Wars here), the two vessels collide; Coffey perishes, a nuclear warhead that he’s carrying sinks to the ocean floor, and the submersible carrying Bud and Lindsay starts to flood. Because the couple have only one diving suit between them, Lindsay insists that Bud let her drown, drag her body back to Deepcore, and attempt to revive her there — a plan that eventually succeeds, after much grief and hysteria.
Then Bud has to descend to the ocean floor to dismantle the warhead. He runs out of oxygen, but is eventually saved by the alien force, which now takes the form of a giant Disney butterfly, with a face that makes it a first cousin to the aliens in Close Encounters. It carries Bud to an underwater alien city (shades of Tron and Tinker Bell) where he is able to breathe again. (This is where De Mille comes in: a pocket of air is created for Bud, flanked by rushing water on both sides, reproducing the parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments.) Finally the whole alien city rises to the ocean’s surface, lifting the carrier and Deepcore with it, and Bud and Lindsay are reunited.
Earlier, I suggested that two oppositions set up by the movie — cold war versus detente and bossy femininity versus nurturing motherhood — were made to seem almost identical by the end. This is largely brought about through the maternal nature of the alien force and the film’s association of this with both the softer side of Lindsay and the peaceful aspects of detente, all three of which develop concurrently in the plot. The reproductive aspect of womanhood neatly ties in with the capacity of the aliens (and of Cameron) to replicate whatever is in front of them, while the nurturing aspect is what supposedly elevates Lindsay into something more suitable for Bud than “the queen bitch of the universe” (i.e., an uppity woman), and what elevates the aliens into something more suited for the guidance of mankind than cold-war villains (i.e., a Russian water tentacle).
This still doesn’t explain, however, why the aliens don’t serve an equally nurturing role for the Montana or Coffey, or why the exclusive importance of mankind’s encounter with a superior alien intelligence is that it brings about a clincher between Bud and Lindsay (with Christian overtones as they both apparently stand on water, not to mention the heavenly choir that celebrates their kiss). For the answers to these questions and others, we’ll obviously have to wait for the sequel. In the meantime, we can ponder the quote from Nietzsche in the press kit — “When you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you” — which implies that narcissism is what’s at the root of all this compulsive replication.