Four tales about Reinette (Joelle Miquel), a country girl who paints and operates according to certain principles, and Mirabelle (Jessica Forde), her less rigorous friend from the city; they meet in the country in the first episode, and share an apartment in Paris during the remaining three. This feature was shot in 16-millimeter by Eric Rohmer in 1986, shortly before he completed Summer in the same format and with the same method of letting his leading actors improvise dialogue rather than his usual strict adherence to scripts. Not part of Rohmer’s “Comedies and Proverbs” series, and deliberately light and nonambitious (very little of consequence occurs in any of the tales), this nevertheless shows the filmmaker at nearly peak form–sharply attentive to the sights and sounds of country and city alike and to the temperamental differences between his two heroines. (Music Box, Friday through Thursday, November 24 through 30)
From the Chicago Reader (November 24, 1989). — J.R.
LOOK WHO’S TALKING
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed and written by Amy Heckerling
With Kirstie Alley, John Travolta, George Segal, Olympia Dukakis, Abe Vigoda, and the voice of Bruce Willis.
The biggest surprise in the film industry this season has been the box office performance of what is generally known as “the talking-baby movie.” Last month, only a week after a Variety reviewer plausibly predicted that this “yuppie-targeted programmer is destined for a short life in theaters, and its video future seems likewise limited,” Look Who’s Talking leapt to the top of the national charts, where it has remained ever since.
Having only just caught up with Look Who’s Talking, I must confess that I found the voice-overs of the talking baby, delivered by Bruce Willis, to be the silliest and least engaging aspect of the picture, although the audience I was seeing it with seemed to feel otherwise. I was probably biased by unpleasant childhood memories of the “Speaking of Animals” shorts — a rather odious series made by Jerry Fairbanks for Paramount during the 40s, which consisted of live-action animals with animated mouths spewing out wisecracks, usually in response (if memory serves) to the gag setups of the offscreen narrator.
Fortunately, writer-director Amy Heckerling hasn’t perpetrated anything quite as hideous as the animals’ moving lips. The baby’s comments — which begin with the sperm that fertilizes his egg, proceed throughout the mother’s pregnancy, and continue until the plot ends, when he’s about two years old — are always made offscreen, and are never heard by anyone except us. There are occasional halfhearted attempts to lip-synch these remarks with the gurgles of the on-screen baby, but Heckerling never resorts to animation.
Still, allowing for the obvious differences between babies and animals, I’m not sure that Heckerling’s conceit is all that different from Fairbanks’s. Representing a nonverbal consciousness with words is nothing new: the internal monologues in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and the descriptions of astral psychology in Olaf Stapledon’s Starmaker are two effective examples that come to mind, but Heckerling’s application of this device is too tacky and simpleminded to qualify as comparably artistic. Having an unborn baby declare “Hey, let’s get a little apple juice down here” when his mother drinks apple juice, or remark to his mother shortly after his birth “Lady, I don’t know about you, but I’m beat,” may be funny, but it has nothing to do with the unknown, the nonverbal, or infant psychology. If such remarks are funny, it’s surely because of the relief they offer from the anxiety one might feel wondering what babies think.
Heckerling seems to indirectly acknowledge this herself in her production-notes description of the film’s inception — an account that becomes steadily more contradictory the further it proceeds: “I used to look at my daughter in her baby seat and wonder what she was thinking about. I assumed she thought the same way I did. You know, sort of cynical thoughts; not cute, adorable baby thoughts. But her perspective would be without any reference points because she was figuring out everything for the first time. . . . Most adults run around intellectualizing and trying to figure out things based on experiences they’ve had. A baby just has to deal with pure feelings. That’s who Mikey is, and he seems to have the adults all figured out.” Having “pure feelings” and having something “all figured out” aren’t very compatible concepts, any more than “cynical thoughts” and “a lack of reference points” are, but the problem of assigning verbal meanings to a baby’s consciousness is certainly real enough, and probably part of every mother’s uncertainties.
A mother’s uncertainties, in fact, may be the real subject of Look Who’s Talking – specifically, an unmarried mother’s uncertainties — and I doubt that the movie would have been so popular if it didn’t voice these concerns (babies, after all, aren’t buying the movie tickets). The baby himself, Mikey, is such an abstraction that it’s hardly surprising that no less than half a dozen real-life babies are used to portray him once he’s out of the womb (including a couple of doubles), and that at least four separate prenatal props or dummies, all of them highly unconvincing, are used prior to that. With a minimum of 10 separate representations — actually 11 including Willis’s voice — Mikey isn’t so much a character as a force to build the movie around, which raises the question of whether the “who” of the title ultimately refers to him or to Heckerling herself.
The unwed mother in the plot is Mollie (Kirstie Alley), an accountant who’s having an affair with Albert (George Segal), a married yuppie who is one of her clients. Technically speaking, it is not so much Albert as biology itself that gets the story rolling. Over the Chantels’ rendition of “I Love You So” — a rock single that is eventually succeeded by a dozen more of similar ilk — an ovum floats through some version of outer or inner space resembling heavenly clouds behind the opening credits. Then there’s a matching cut from this gelatinous-looking cell to a lamp with melting red wax on Mollie’s desk at work, where Albert is insisting he’ll eventually get a divorce. The movie’s title appears over a fleet of spermatozoons swirling through cotton-candy clouds to the strains of another rock single (”I Get Around” by the Beach Boys), accompanied by Mikey’s voice saying “Come on, you kids, c’mon, right down, kids, here we go,” until one of the spermatozoons unites with the ovum, setting off blue bolts of electricity. Finally, writer-director Heckerling’s credit appears over an open toilet bowl, where Mollie, experiencing morning sickness, promptly throws up.
When it becomes clear to Mollie that (a) she’s pregnant, (b) she wants to have her baby, and (c) Albert, who’s now fallen for his interior decorator, has no intention of marrying her, she hastily invents a story for her mother (Olympia Dukakis) and other interested parties about having been artificially inseminated. Discovering Albert’s infidelity only moments before she starts going into labor, she hails a taxi. The driver, James (John Travolta), manages to get her to the hospital in time (after a formulaic mad ride through what is supposed to be Manhattan, although the film was shot in British Columbia). Mikey becomes a good deal more vocal once he’s born, and the film cuts away at this point to clue us in to the thoughts of other babies in the hospital. (There are two later “baby montage sequences” — once with a bunch of babies in strollers and once in a park, where they’re playing in a sandbox.)
James visits Mollie at home, immediately takes a liking to Mikey (”How do you like New York so far?” he inquires, to which Willis replies “It’s my kine-a town”), and gradually insinuates himself into her life. Eager to find a father for Mikey, Mollie has a string of awful dates. James agrees to baby-sit for her in exchange for using her address to establish a residency for his grandfather (Abe Vigoda), who James wants to set up in a new old-folks’ home. The growing rapport between James and Mikey eventually leads Mollie to consider him as a possible sexual partner and husband, despite her doubts about his carefree manner and economic situation. Albert briefly comes back into the picture, only to be thoroughly repudiated by James, Mollie, and Mikey in turn, and after another formulaic action sequence — in which Mikey wanders off and is nearly run over — Mikey says “Dada” to James, this time in lip sync, which settles the matter of Mollie’s future husband for good. A year or so later, Mollie gives birth to a daughter, who talks offscreen just like Mikey, and the closing credits roll past another fleet of happy spermatozoons drifting through vaguely heavenly spaces, this time to the tune of Paul Anka’s “(You’re) Having My Baby.”
Heckerling’s previous work as director on the promising Fast Times at Ridgemont High was followed by Johnny Dangerously and National Lampoon’s European Vacation, neither of which I’ve seen. She’s adept at comically illustrating Mollie’s fantasies about future husbands with a minimum of fuss, and has a certain sensitivity in handling actors that is especially apparent in her work with Travolta. She also manages to convey a sympathetic grasp of her heroine’s dilemma, which, as I’ve already suggested, is largely what her movie is about. The talking-baby conceit originally struck me as being somehow marginal to this concern — it often seemed unnecessarily distracting or redundant, never saying anything that wasn’t already conveyed through other means — but further reflection about the movie and its unusual popularity has changed my feelings about this.
Consider, for starters, the significance of the use of an offscreen male adult voice. Observers of TV commercials have remarked that this voice suggests the “voice of God” in terms of its paternal authority, its role as ultimate arbiter and adviser, commonly informing a housewife what the correct choices are — or else corroborating the choices she has already made — when it comes to making purchases, running a household, fixing a meal, washing clothes, caring for children, and so on. (To confirm this overall tendency, I recently watched a slew of daytime commercials, and the preponderance of offscreen adult male voices in these ads is staggering; even in the few cases when an adult female narrator is used, the voice of the housewife’s husband almost always comes in to verify the message — to authenticate it, as it were.)
Look Who’s Talking appears at a time when the validity of godlike male authority in such matters is, if not exactly under siege, at least being thrown into question. All the male grown-ups in the picture — from Albert to Mollie’s father to her boss to her various dates to James to James’s grandfather — are clearly established as less than ideal authority figures: selfish, unstable, irritable, flaky, or some combination of the above. James, in spite of his boyish qualities, his flakiness, and his subyuppie life-style, is clearly the most acceptable male figure around, and Mikey is aware of this (as we know from his offscreen remarks) long before Mollie is; but even James is far from ideal as an ultimate male authority: whatever else he may offer, he certainly isn’t godlike.
The ironic thing about Mikey’s offscreen voice is that it gently parodies the function of a godlike male authority figure without ever questioning its necessity. Simultaneously unformed yet wise, “cynical” yet “pure,” this voice preserves the form of patriarchal authority while making it look slightly silly. (This side of Mikey represents the commonsensical side of instinct and impulse that is part of Mollie’s psychological makeup as well, but it’s not something she has conscious access to.) In short, the notion that baby knows best becomes a humorous variation on the notion that father knows best; it never reaches the radical point of asserting that mother knows best. (After all, it is the sperm and not the ovum which is granted a voice from the very beginning.)
Up to now, I’ve neglected a plausible reading of this movie which suggests a much more reactionary overall meaning — the strict identification of the viewer with Mikey/Bruce Willis rather than Mollie. This is clearly the implication of a recent newspaper ad for the movie headlined “Start Your Holiday Early, Gobble Up This Season’s Biggest Comedy Hit,” which shows the baby wearing sunglasses (to suggest Willis) and an Indian headband and feathers (to suggest “native instinct”?) grasping and biting into a holiday turkey. Male self-love and self-interest are currently the most beloved national traits, at least as evidenced by the charismatic leading figures in Batman (Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson), Crimes and Misdemeanors (Woody Allen and Martin Landau), and Harlem Nights (Eddie Murphy and Eddie Murphy), and from this standpoint, Mikey/Willis may represent only a more blatant version of the same infantile male narcissism.
I should add that Mikey’s voice isn’t the only representation of godlike authority in the movie. The mainly male-dominated pop tunes churning away on the sound track (apart from Janis Joplin singing “Cry Baby” and Katrina and the Waves performing “Walking on Sunshine”) carry out a related function, simultaneously mocking and fulfilling the notion of eternal verities, and the implicit linking of a woman’s innards with heavenly reaches in the movie’s prologue and epilogue helps to consolidate the overall religious context. Men and gods are still running the show, and the most that Heckerling’s comedy can muster is to undermine their nobility just a little by placing their wisdom in the mouths of babes and teenage crooners.
From the Chicago Reader (November 17, 1989). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Martin Donovan
Written by Donovan and David Koepp
With Colin Firth, Hart Bochner, Dora Bryan, Liz Smith, Fabrizio Bentivoglio, James Telfer, Mirella D’Angelo, Juan Vitali, and Francesca d’Aloja.
Although it qualifies technically as an American movie, Martin Donovan’s ambitious, disturbing thriller Apartment Zero is one of those international hodgepodges that are somewhat disorienting almost by definition. Set in Buenos Aires, made with actors and technicians from three continents, and filmed in English by an Argentinean director who has lived mainly in Italy and England since the 70s, it has the sort of multinational sprawl that only a strong script and a forceful style could hold together. Fortunately, Apartment Zero has both script and style in spades. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but to me it’s an exciting piece of controlled cinematic delirium.
I first encountered this movie at a midnight screening at the Berlin Film Festival last February, having been guided to it by a perceptive rave in Variety by Todd McCarthy. Ever since then I’ve been wondering when and how it would eventually turn up in Chicago. It lacks most of the usual commercial calling cards (big stars, lovable nerds, genre cliches, babies, body switches, Spielberg lighting), it was passed up by the New York and Chicago film festivals, and it didn’t seem the sort of picture that Vincent Canby would like. As it turns out, the Chicago Lesbian and Gay International Film Festival is showing it twice this Saturday at the Music Box, and the Music Box hopes to bring it back for a longer run next year: not a bad place for it, because the movie needs a big screen for optimal impact. Whether it benefits from being shown under the category “gay film” is more debatable, although the same sort of problem would apply if it were shown as a “Latino film” at the Latino Film Festival. Boldly mixing genres as well as nationalities, Apartment Zero defies most of the categories one could think up for it — a commercial liability but an aesthetic asset — and the Lesbian and Gay Festival should be applauded for taking the initiative.
Visibly influenced by Roman Polanski (The Tenant) and Alfred Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train and Psycho), and marked by strong parallels with Claude Chabrol (Les cousins) and Pier Paolo Pasolini (Teorema), this movie is never really at the mercy of any of these touchstones; rather it uses or reflects each of them to carry the story a certain distance, but only so that Donovan can pick it up again and proceed further along his own route. And because tortured cinephilia is one of its key and integral themes, it justifies its borrowings in a broader context — as the reflection of a hero who can view life only in relation to movies he’s seen. Donovan can’t be accused of lazy copying and recycling, in the manner of De Palma and most of the other slasher specialists; there’s never any doubt that he has his own story to tell. (Starting out as an actor in several films, including Fellini’s Satyricon, Donovan worked as an assistant to Luchino Visconti on Ludwig and Conversation Piece before turning to theater as a writer and director; his first and only previous feature, State of Wonder, which I haven’t seen, was made about five years ago.)
I should warn readers at this point that Apartment Zero’s baroque, perverse plot contains at least one major delayed revelation, but there’s no way of comprehensively discussing what the film is about without bringing it up here. I won’t attempt, and see no reason, to recount all of the many plot twists, but those who plan to see the movie are herewith invited to leave this review now and return afterward.
The hero is Adrian LeDuc (Colin Firth), the operator of a faltering movie revival house. He is not a very likable sort, though there’s something rather touching at times about his entrapment in his multiple neuroses. Reclusive, sexually repressed, resolutely apolitical, and paranoid by nature — a veritable closet case — he lives in an apartment house full of gregarious neighbors whom he studiously avoids. He surrounds himself at home with framed portraits of movie stars, and spends most of the little money he has on his ailing mother’s hospital bills. Although he’s Argentine by birth, he’s been educated in England; as a means of holding others at a distance, he insists on speaking English exclusively and even pretends to be an Englishman who has no knowledge of Spanish. Running into debt, he’s forced to take on a boarder; a mysterious, charismatic American hunk in blue jeans and T-shirt named Jack Carney (Hart Bochner) turns up and immediately wins him over.
Jack claims to be working for a computer company on an exchange program, but Adrian never sees him at work. Pathetically grateful to have Jack for a friend and companion — they spend much of their time together playing a game in which Jack names three actors and Adrian has to name the movie they’re all in — Adrian insists on doing Jack’s laundry, and generally dotes on him. He also displays a jealous possessiveness when Jack begins to befriend the various neighbors in the building, and makes snide remarks about AIDS and casual sex when Jack suggests one night that the two of them “find some girls.”
Meanwhile, we periodically hear reports and/or see evidence of a string of serial murders occurring in Buenos Aires — murders whose methods are said by a local human rights group to resemble those used by the Argentine death squads. And we see Jack beginning to treat various neighbors in the building with the same loving solicitude he shows toward Adrian; like Terence Stamp in Teorema, he becomes a figure of sexual salvation to everyone in the immediate vicinity: a dutiful son to two elderly English ladies, a lover to the lonely and attractive housewife who lives next door, the homoerotic chum of a fellow who says Jack reminds him of his roommate in prep school, and the protector and supporter of a male transvestite who lives in the building.
Eventually we (and Adrian) discover that Jack is not only the serial murderer, but a former mercenary employed by the death squads, and it is the complex unraveling of this character that makes this film something more than just a perverse genre piece. As a multifaceted and thoroughly chilling representation of the face and role that America presents to the rest of the world — an uncanny yet persuasive combination of James Dean, Oliver North, Billy Graham, and Charles Manson (to cite only four possible mythic equivalents) — Jack is as fascinating as any recent screen character that comes to mind, and Hart Bochner’s masterful performance in the part allows every paradoxical nuance in this figure to resonate with maximal intensity. Mercurial, driven by obscure torments (at one point Adrian finds him crying softly in their living room), and generally as laid back as Adrian is agitated, he comes across as a plausible Hollywood icon and all-American jock who also happens to be a remorseless killer.
It should be added that Colin Firth’s performance as Adrian is no less accomplished or effective in intricately conjuring up a character with the same amount of ambiguity and complexity. (It’s virtually the antithesis, by the way, of his performance in the title role of Valmont as a smugly self- assured 18th-century rake.) Whether we regard Adrian or Jack as the “hero” of the story — and whether we regard either character as a simple villain — is one of the pivotal, queasy questions that the film poses for most of its running time, and Donovan makes sure that there are no easy answers. As a passive spectator for most of the film, Adrian is our own uneasy surrogate and principal figure of identification, despite the fact that he mainly comes across as unbearable. As the charismatic “actor” and “star” in the drama, Jack is the principal focus of our and Adrian’s attention, and his perpetual engagement with the world makes him into something of a role model — although he also turns out to be a terrifying lunatic. By the end of the film, Donovan has suggested that these two grotesque yet compelling characters represent not only two alternatives, but also, curiously enough, two sides of the same coin — which is to say, warring (or perhaps complementary) sides of the same personality.
If all of Apartment Zero were realized with the same power and resonance as these two characters, it would be an outright masterpiece. Even apart from Firth and Bochner, the movie still has a lot going for it: a flair for black comedy that crops up at unexpected yet apposite moments; a bombastic, grandiloquent, and highly original score by Elia Cmiral that occasionally suggests some of the emotional directness of Gato Barbieri’s music in Last Tango in Paris; a documentary feeling for Buenos Aires that deftly catches its various moods at different times of day; a witty and apt sense of filmic reference in Adrian’s moviegoing tastes and habits; periodic blackouts between scenes that effectively add to the overall hallucinatory atmosphere.
What the movie lacks, at least in relation to its exalted ambitions, is a consistent style that can do full justice to all of its plot and characters. The film is packed with so many characters and incidents that even at a running time of 124 minutes, there’s a certain sense of haste in the way many of them are dealt with. The various Polanski-like scenes involving the neighbors — which are mainly set in the apartment house’s lobby, on the stairs, or in the hallways — tend to be more strained than the others in their reaching after effects with wide-angle lenses and unconventional camera setups. (More generally, Donovan’s frequent recourse to sudden high or low angles, and a number of other self-conscious devices, such as slurred motion in a couple of places, has a cumulative effect of rhetorical overkill.) The hard center of the film, held by Bochner and Firth’s relationship, is logically and effectively developed, but one occasionally feels a sense of drift when each of these characters is followed for some length on his own — in Adrian’s overwrought scenes with his mother, for instance.
As a consequence of these limitations, the film can be faulted in spots for overreaching, and some viewers may even be inclined to regard it as camp. But as a chilling portrait of the American abroad, it deserves to be regarded with the utmost seriousness, for it tells us something about what we signify to the world outside that we won’t easily find from more familiar sources. At a time when this country is painfully adjusting to a new, less hegemonic role in world affairs, the fact that it maintains a dominant position in the world of movies is rife with contradictions and ambiguities, and Donovan has hit upon an ingenious way of representing this situation. He finds it in the complex interplay between his two leading characters — a decadent and alienated voyeur and a deadly romantic hero, both of them myopic, second-class players locked helplessly in the dreams and memories of another era.
Shot for the astonishing sum of $5,000, Gregg Araki’s second feature is accurately described by its writer-director-producer-cinematographer-editor as “a minimalistic gay/bisexual postpunk antithesis to the smug complacency of regressive Hollywood tripe like The Big Chill.” A college reunion of sorts takes place when Rachel (Maureen Dondanville), a lesbian, and Sara (Nicole Dillenberg), a hetereosexual, decide to visit their gay friend Michael (Bretton Vail) in LA for a weekend; their new lovers (Andrea Beane and Marcus D’Amico) are in tow, and Michael’s former lover Alex (Lance Woods) happens to turn up as well. All three couples quarrel and gripe to one another about how bored and directionless they are, and there’s a certain amount of tentative breaking up, infidelity, and coming back together again, but basically very little happens. The characters chiefly talk, and Araki’s well-scripted and mainly well-synchronized dialogue essentially carries the movie. An authentic expression of the dead-end feeling of a generation, Araki’s film can be irritating in spots: the defeatist attitude toward politics (epitomized especially in the semiparodic treatment of Rachel’s girlfriend Leah) seems assumed rather than explored, and there are times when the overall existential angst seems as much a matter of fashion here as it was 25 years ago in Antonioni films. But the depictions of the warmth, confusions, and conflicts between Araki’s half dozen burned-out cases also command interest and respect. A presentation of the Chicago Lesbian and Gay International Film Festival. (Music Box, Friday, November 17, 11:00)
Not a martial arts movie (the title refers to a video game) but a provocative French feature starring and based on a story by the talented English/French actress Jane Birkin, written and directed by Agnes Varda (Vagabond). Birkin plays a 40-year-old divorcee with two daughters who befriends, falls in love with, and eventually has a fleeting affair with a 14-year-old boy (Mathieu Demy, Varda’s son) who is also in love with her. The very matter-of-fact treatment that this taboo subject receives ties it in persuasively with the film’s comfortably domestic middle-class milieu and the surrounding cultural climate of France and England (in particular, the impact of AIDS). And to compound the personal (if not autobiographical) nature of the project, Birkin’s two daughters are played by her actual daughters (including The Little Thief’s Charlotte Gainsbourg). Neither salacious nor flippant, the film is the serious working-through of a fantasy of Birkin’s that shirks neither its implications nor its consequences. Varda’s serene and unrhetorical handling of such a loaded subject underlined with sympathy and understanding for all of the characters, and full of both wit and tenderness–is what gives this picture its charge (1988). (Fine Arts)