The onetime Chicago-based filmmaker will be here for a screening of seven of her films made during the 80s, presented in conjunction with Women in the Director’s Chair. Some of the half dozen of these films that I’ve seen are lyrical studies in motion whose subjects are usually either tourist attractions or tourists: Pools, Pond and Waterfall, Tourist, and Parisian Blinds–all made between 1980 and 1983. Others are more complex meditations: Optic Nerve (1985), on how and what Hammer’s grandmother, who’s in a nursing home, sees; and Endangered (1988), on the precarious situation of the independent, artisanal filmmaker. The most recent film to be shown, which I haven’t seen, is Still Point, completed last year, which will be receiving its Chicago premiere. Optic Nerve and Endangered, the most interesting of the films I saw, concentrate on the processes of seeing and abound in striking, strobelike effects, superimpositions, and diverse split-screen and jigsaw-puzzle like compositions. Endangered also features glimpses of endangered species from the bird and animal kingdoms. Both films have eloquently spare sound tracks composed by Helen Thorington. (Chicago Filmmakers, 1229 W. Belmont, Wednesday, February 28, 7:00, 281-8788)
Shot in black and white in 1969, but neither completed nor shown until 1989, this delightful, offbeat comedy about a sad-eyed, small-time New York numbers racketeer named Harry Plotnick (Martin Priest) who has just emerged from prison after many years, was written and directed by Michael Roemer, whose only well-known previous feature was the skillful Nothing but a Man (1964), about the experiences of a black couple living in Alabama. Finding that life has passed him by, Harry gamely tries to buy his way into middle-class respectability, even though his wife despises him and he’s a total stranger to his kids. In the course of conducting business, he passes through a picaresque succession of locations and noisy events–bar mitzvah, fashion show, dog-training session, and an endless stream of parties–yet the movie’s pace is leisurely, the humor quiet and affectionate in striking contrast to the brassy world he moves through. Beautifully shot (by coproducer Robert M. Young, a director in his own right) and cast with a wonderful bunch of unknowns (who include Ben Lang, Maxine Woods, Henry Nemo, Jacques Taylor, Jean Leslie, Ellen Herbert, and Sandra Kazan), this is both a lovely piece of filmmaking and an exquisitely detailed portrait of a milieu and period, sealed as if in a time capsule. (Fine Arts)
From the Chicago Reader (February 9, 1990). — J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed and written by Jim Jarmusch
With Youki Kudoh, Masatoshi Nagase, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Cinque Lee, Nicoletta Braschi, Elizabeth Bracco, Joe Strummer, and Rick Aviles.
Mastery is a rare commodity in American movies these days, in matters both large and small, so when a poetic master working on a small scale comes into view, it’s reason to sit up and take notice. Jim Jarmusch’s second feature, Stranger Than Paradise, won the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 1984 and catapulted him from the position of an obscure New York independent with a European cult following — on the basis of his first feature, Permanent Vacation (1980) — to international stardom.
As the first — and so far only — filmmaker informed by the New York minimalist aesthetic to make a sizable mainstream splash, Jarmusch had a lot riding on his next films, and he has acquitted himself admirably. He hasn’t sold out to Hollywood or diluted his style, and, unlike most of the few other contemporary American independents to make it big, he has managed to maintain rigorous control over every aspect of his work, from script to production to distribution. (His friend Spike Lee has approached this ideal, but working with major studios, as Lee has on School Daze and Do the Right Thing, hasn’t afforded him quite the same degree of autonomy. And neither Lee nor any other American filmmaker of comparable renown owns every feature he has made, as Jarmusch does — a position of power that makes him literally unique.)
To call Jarmusch a master on a small scale is not by any means to downgrade his work, but it does place a special burden on it. Working in a carefully pared-down style with characters who are either semiarticulate or articulate only in languages most of us don’t understand — and letting these characters, not plot, carry his pictures — Jarmusch maps out a special arena where every filmic and personal gesture, every camera angle, camera movement, and line of dialogue counts, and counts for more than it would in a more conventional movie. A false move in a film by Spike Lee or Alex Cox can be written off as a lapse or a throwaway detail, but it is part of the integrity of Jarmusch’s filmmaking that nothing is expendable. His hip miniatures are like high-wire acts where stumbling is tantamount to falling, so it’s not too surprising that they usually depend on the same tried-and-true maneuvers, regardless of how many formal, thematic, and emotional departures are broached in each new feature. Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose could be the motto of Jarmusch’s third and fourth features, for better and for worse. (Whether or not he’ll break with this pattern on his next picture — a black-and-white Western — remains to be seen.)
The fact that Jarmusch’s cinematic influences mainly come from abroad while his subjects are strictly American gives his films a kind of international sophistication that generally can’t be found in Hollywood products. (As his recent list of the ten best films of the 80s in Premiere magazine demonstrated, his taste in film is unusually discerning.) At his best, beginning with his second feature, he has used non-American characters as lenses to show us some of our own peculiarities — leading to a kind of two-way discourse about how we see others and how others see us. In order for this to work, however, Jarmusch has had to understand enough about his characters — Americans and non-Americans alike — in order to make this discourse informed and pointed. Within his chosen limits, he succeeded in this task in both Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law. In Mystery Train, his latest feature, the results are more uneven: some of the characters are beautifully imagined and realized, while others seem drawn from a more familiar stockpile, designed for reuse rather than discovery.
Permanent Vacation had ideas as well as some wit and charm, but it lacked the concentration that gave Stranger Than Paradise its lasting impact: the extended one-take sequences, the exquisitely timed blackouts and stretches of black leader between them, the grungy allure and delicately nuanced interplay of the three leads (Richard Edson, John Lurie, Eszter Balint), the relative uniformity of Tom Di Cillo’s grayish cinematography in relation to a shifting landscape (urban New York, suburban Cleveland, rural Florida), the clipped humor of the parsimonious dialogue. Jarmusch’s comic hipness certainly hovered around the edges of Permanent Vacation and informed some of its scenes, but in Stranger Than Paradise it blossomed into something more sad, sweet, and durable — the relationship between two male layabouts and the young Hungarian woman they adore but are too shy and macho to express their feelings to directly.
Down by Law (1986) repeated certain aspects of Stranger Than Paradise – which brought Jarmusch some complaints — with some significant differences. Another three-part black-and-white comedy about two hapless Americans (John Lurie and Tom Waits) and an unassimilated but resourceful European (Roberto Benigni) converging, coexisting, and diverging in changing yet similar landscapes (this time the Louisiana settings of New Orleans, a prison, a swamp, and a forest), the film made use of a similar low-life milieu and the same sort of strategic odd-shaped pauses in the dialogue. But the formal and thematic differences were in many cases just as significant as the similarities.
Both movies were fundamentally about freedom and confinement, but the stylistic moves articulating this dialectic were shaped quite differently, and the thematic consequences of this difference were equally marked. The one-take, one-angle-per-scene style of Stranger Than Paradise was jettisoned for a more strategic use of framing combined with deep focus that suggested different perspectives on the same scenes (initially associated with the women living with Waits and Lurie, and later linked with Benigni); Jarmusch used a new cinematographer, Robby Müller, and with him came a more orchestrated and thought-out camera style.
While the convergence of the three characters in Stranger Than Paradise was willed, and their divergence accidental, Down by Law reversed this pattern by landing its three heroes in the same prison cell, and eventually having them go separate ways. Far from being another (albeit male) version of Balint, Benigni was quite the reverse — ebullient and demonstrative where Balint was withdrawn and deadpan. Finally, the fact that Benigni wound up as part of a romantic couple — after encountering another Italian (Nicoletta Braschi) in a cottage in the middle of a swamp — gave the whole film a fairy-tale ambience that was totally absent from Stranger Than Paradise, as well as a kind of optimism that was quite out of keeping with the more absurdist plots of the previous films.
With Mystery Train, the question of differences and similarities with Jarmusch’s last two pictures becomes even more complex. Returning to color for the first time since Permanent Vacation (with a much more carefully controlled palette), and working again with Müller, he once again uses a three-part structure, but this time each part centers on a separate set of characters, and all three take place in Memphis during the same 24 hours. Characters from the three parts do overlap, but apart from a character in part two and her boyfriend who turns up in part three, this overlapping is coincidental.
All three parts are set in the same rundown section of Memphis, not far from a train station — one of the principal formal elements in the film, which Jarmusch uses as a kind of theme and variations. This brings back the notion from Down by Law of different perspectives on the same events and locations, but it takes a different form here that’s roughly analogous to three-dimensional chess. Since each fresh perspective occurs as part of a separate story, it is only after the film is over, when we can mentally superimpose the three stories, that the cubistic effect fully takes hold.
One of Jarmusch’s stated inspirations for the film is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – separate stories being told during a religious pilgrimage — and he even takes care to stage the first Memphis street scene on Chaucer Street, and point this out in the dialogue. It’s a connection that makes a certain (if limited) amount of sense in the first part, entitled “Far From Yokohama,” about a young Japanese couple (Masatoshi Nagase and Youki Kudoh) traveling across the U.S. by train. Given their fervor for rock icons associated with Memphis — he prefers Carl Perkins while she stands by Elvis — their trip resembles a religious pilgrimage: specifically to the Sun studios (which we see) and to Graceland (which we don’t). (Their next scheduled stop after Memphis is New Orleans, where they plan to visit Fats Domino’s house.) But to all appearances, that’s as far as the Chaucer analogy goes: the other two stories have nothing to do with a pilgrimage, and while the characters in Chaucer recount their own stories, the characters here — with one exception — don’t.
“Far From Yokohama” is full of charm and humor; Jarmusch’s tenderness toward Jun and Mitzuko includes a warm understanding of their emotional dynamics as a couple — his poker-faced stolidity and her affectionate aggressiveness — and the performances of Nagase and Kudoh, almost exclusively in Japanese (with subtitles), are consistently engaging. This section, which introduces us to the train of the title and to the section of Memphis that we are to revisit in the next two parts — including the run-down Arcade Hotel — also introduces us to a vision of the south that is acutely and effectively trained on two contrasting qualities, lushness and decay. (The lushness is apparent in the hills covered by kudzu that flank the approaching and retreating train in the film’s opening and closing shots; the decay is evident in, among other locations, the ruins of a movie theater and a filling station.)
Problems begin to arise when the couple visit the Sun studios and a tour guide runs through a mechanical, memorized spiel: Mitzuko’s expression of disbelief at this jabbering is funny, but the speech itself and its delivery are slightly off, not quite convincing either as satire or as straight observation. In the second section, “A Ghost,” an even bigger problem in plausibility crops up when a black news vendor tells a white customer he can “change history,” and in the same jivey manner convinces the heroine of this episode, Luisa (Down by Law’s Nicoletta Braschi), to buy an additional newspaper and a stack of magazines. The vendor’s patter may be funny, but in relation to the southern setting it is totally wrong — just as the comic byplay between the black night clerk (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins) and bellboy (Cinque Lee) with various white customers at the Arcade Hotel, which figures in all three sections, is usually not believable either. I am admittedly more sensitive to these nuances than most, having grown up in the south, but black and white southerners don’t speak to one another this way, and the problem with Jarmusch’s handling of such scenes is that he doesn’t appear to know this.
This problem is analogous to what happened when Bob Rafelson went to Alabama to make Stay Hungry, and when Robert Altman took his cast and crew to Nashville. A director’s lack of familiarity with a locale can theoretically produce a certain freshness of outlook, but it also can lead to serious misrepresentation if he winds up superimposing forms of speech and behavior that he knows from other places on the local populace, or on actors who are meant to be playing locals. When critics acclaimed Nashville for having something profound to say about “America,” they were speaking abstractly rather than concretely, because as far as local detail was concerned, the film was taking place nowhere.
I’m sorry to say that the same strictures apply to Mystery Train, and because of the small scale, in which, as I’ve mentioned, every step counts, the consequences of these miscalculations are even more harmful. As long as we’re seeing Memphis from the viewpoint of foreign tourists — the Japanese couple in “Far From Yokohama,” Luisa in “A Ghost” — we can at least momentarily accept the fact that things look and sound a little cockeyed. But whenever we’re asked to move beyond these viewpoints the balance gets thrown out of kilter; an urban provincialism begins to creep into the picture, and with it a hint of a sensibility that can’t recognize or respond to what’s indigenous and distinct about the region that’s being filmed. (It might also be argued that Jarmusch’s treatment of black characters in all his features demonstrates certain limitations. While his uses of black culture are always appreciative and even celebratory, they generally appear to be circumscribed within a narrow range of assumptions, most of them seemingly derived from the lyrics of blues, R and B, and rock songs.)
Luisa is a widowed newlywed momentarily stranded with her groom’s coffin in the Memphis airport. (This sequence begins with a shot of the coffin, which may remind us that a hearse was the first thing we saw in Down by Law.) Turning up via taxi in the same neighborhood where we previously saw Jun and Mitzuko — which leads to some pleasurable visual rhymes, such as the moment she passes an empty lot where they had lingered — she gives money to a guy who tells her a story about picking up a hitchhiker who proved to be the ghost of Elvis. Then she winds up sharing a room in the Arcade Hotel with a stranger named DeeDee (Elizabeth Bracco), who tells her about coming to Memphis from New Jersey with her brother and her recent breakup with her English boyfriend. Later, after DeeDee goes to sleep, Luisa briefly glimpses and converses with Elvis’s ghost — a funny and delicately handled scene that enhances the film’s overall sense that Memphis is indeed haunted. (More subtly, this scene also relates to her recently deceased husband, whom she never mentions to DeeDee or anyone else in Memphis; the closest Luisa comes to alluding to her tragedy is her remark, “Sometimes even the greatest love can last only a week.”)
The third and least successful sequence, “Lost in Space,” begins with DeeDee’s ex-boyfriend Johnny (Joe Strummer), who is coincidentally nicknamed “Elvis,” drunk and despondent over the recent losses of both his girlfriend and his job. When he takes out a revolver and looks like he might shoot himself, a friend phones Will (Rick Aviles), another friend, to come and take him away. Will calls DeeDee’s brother (Steve Buscemi) and the two of them pick up Johnny in Will’s truck. At Johnny’s insistence, they stop at a liquor store, where Johnny attempts to hold up the clerk and then shoots him after he makes a racist remark directed at Will (who’s black) — another scene that’s low on verisimilitude. Fleeing from the scene of the crime, the threesome hide out in a decrepit, unused room at the Arcade Hotel.
The main problem with the third section is that it seems mainly contrived in order to link up with the first two, and has less independent value of its own (apart from one very funny sequence in the hotel, when the three discuss the TV show Lost in Space). As an Englishman, Johnny might seem to offer another outsider’s view of Memphis, but in fact he doesn’t; he’s too self-centered to react much to anything or anyone else around him. It’s possible that Jarmusch intended this sequence to offer some indigenous flavor, but unfortunately it doesn’t go much farther in plot and emotion than a typical country-western song. And there’s something gratuitous about the incident in the liquor store; we aren’t made to care whether the clerk dies or not, and considering the weight that’s placed on death in the second section, this lack of concern seems sloppy and callous. (Admittedly, the offscreen murder committed by Benigni in Down by Law had some of this quality, although the fact that we didn’t see it made it easier to overlook.)
As I’ve suggested earlier, it’s character rather than plot that ultimately matters most in Jarmusch’s films, and part of the problem with “Lost in Space” is that the characters and their interactions aren’t very fresh — they rely too much on types and behavioral details from Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law. At the same time, the numerous rhymes that are played throughout the film achieve their fullest expression here: DeeDee’s brother, for example, was initially encountered on the street by Mitzuko in the first part, while Will was observed by Luisa in the second section. Other recurring motifs — the sound of a gunshot, a patch of DJ patter (from Tom Waits) and Elvis’s “Blue Moon” on the radio, a train crossing on an overpass, paintings of Elvis in all three hotel rooms, the comic business between the night clerk and bellboy — become even more musical in effect when they’re encountered for the second and third time.
This suggests that Jarmusch’s formal ambitions for the film may have more to do with music — three successive choruses of the same song — than with Chaucer. (The fact that we experience the three sections successively though they’re occurring simultaneously also affords some of the formal satisfaction of solving a puzzle, although it’s a minimalist puzzle at best.) The abstract patterns created by the film are even more interesting than those found in Jarmusch’s earlier work, and if we can accept his Memphis as an abstraction of that city, we may not have too much trouble accepting the rest.
I certainly can’t object to his reductive approach to the locale — his excluding all the shopping malls and modern buildings that we can find easily enough in other American cities and concentrating exclusively on those gritty locations that point toward a mythic past. Perhaps the treatment of most of the secondary characters (and at least one of the principal ones) that I object to can be rationalized as a related form of reduction, although they’re not so much reduced as inadequately imagined, created more out of a void — or at best out of the cliches in a song lyric — than out of a real city like Memphis. They reek more of attitude than of personal acquaintance.
This last program in a four-part series is probably the most interesting and far ranging. It takes us all the way from an early film by Bruce Conner (Cosmic Ray, 1961) and an excerpt from Nam June Paik’s 1973 Global Groove to some fascinating recent explorations by Kit Fitzgerald and Paul Garrin (with Ryuichi Sakamoto), Bob Snyder (with his own music), and Carole Ann Klonarides and Michael Owen (with Christian Marclay). (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Sunday, February 11, 7:15, 443-3737)
From the Chicago Reader (February 2, 1990). — J.R.
ROGER & ME
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Michael Moore.
There’s no question that you should see Roger & Me if you haven’t already. Michael Moore’s comic documentary about the devastation of Flint, Michigan, resulting from General Motors’ massive plant closings and job layoffs is the most entertaining American documentary to come along in years. Better yet, Roger & Me is radical in its angry critique of the Reagan era — its legacy of corporate greed and its cheerful heartlessness — in a way that makes contemporary Hollywood movies seem cowardly and conformist.
The story of how Michael Moore, a journalist from Flint with no prior filmmaking experience, financed his first feature is an American success story with an inspirational value all its own. Moore sold his house and furnishings, organized local bingo games, invested his settlement from a wrongful-discharge lawsuit against Mother Jones (where he briefly served as editor), and collected hundreds of small investments from Michigan residents to raise his $160,000 budget. After the film became a popular hit and prizewinner at several film festivals last fall, it was picked up by Warners for $3 million and is already well on its way to becoming an independent sleeper. Remarkably accomplished for a first film — streamlined, agreeably fast-paced, deftly organized, full of laughs and surprises — it seems to prove that an outsider to the film industry can still make it into the big time.
The film’s slender story consists of two layers: (1) what has happened in Flint during the 80s, specifically in conjunction with General Motors’ closing of 11 plants and laying off of 35,000 workers, and (2) Moore’s unsuccessful attempts to buttonhole General Motors chairman Roger Smith, who was responsible for the layoffs, and bring him to Flint to see the consequences of his actions: massive evictions of unemployed workers, a rat population explosion, a soaring crime rate, and other diverse horrors that have made Flint, according to Money magazine, the worst place to live in America.
Regarding the first layer, Harlan Jacobson, the former editor of Film Comment, recently pointed out in that magazine that Moore’s implied (if unstated) chronology of events is somewhat at variance with the historical record. A visit by Ronald Reagan to Flint to cheer up unemployed workers, for instance, took place in 1980 — before Reagan was president, and six years before Roger Smith closed the plants. Similarly, Flint’s Hyatt Regency and Auto World theme park (two attempts by town fathers to pump life into the town’s economy) opened in 1982 and 1984, respectively, long before the massive layoffs in ‘86 and ‘87. Although none of this fancy footwork necessarily invalidates any of Moore’s major points (which are made more directly and without any of the same chronological ambiguity in an article he wrote for the June 6, 1987, issue of the Nation headlined “General Motors Pulls Out: In Flint, Tough Times Last”), Jacobson takes the peculiar position that it’s cause for extreme moral outrage, even going so far as to compare Moore’s minor distortions to President Johnson’s lying about the Gulf of Tonkin incident.
Jacobson’s findings are certainly worth noting, although his hysterical reaction seems needlessly hyperbolic and misplaced. Slick journalism routinely traffics in such minor distortions (and Jacobson’s own uncritical embrace of glitzy writing in Film Comment over the past several years, as editor and writer, has been far from exemplary). Consider most of the recent reporting by the national media of the U.S. invasion of Panama — which blithely transformed a statement by Noriega from the Spanish subjunctive along the lines of “It’s as if we were at war with the U.S.” to “We are at war with the U.S.,” and which devoted much more attention to whether or not Bush was a “wimp” than to how many international agreements he was gleefully violating — and the issue of whether Michael Moore elides a few dates looks like pretty small potatoes.
Worst of all, Jacobson’s emphasis completely bypasses a much larger problem — a matter of style and tone that is a good deal harder to separate from the film’s strengths and virtues. Moore’s chronological tinkering can be regarded as one of the many symptoms of this problem, but it is far from central. Much more to the point, I think, is what Roger & Me does with and to an audience’s sense of humor — and beyond that, what it has to do in order to receive the acclaim and attention it has been getting.
I’m not excluding myself from the audience. Roger & Me made me laugh uproariously both times I saw it; it also made me sick — not only about what it had to say, but also about how it was saying it, and how I and many others in the audience were enjoying it. On some level, we were being invited to laugh at our own defeat as human beings, our incapacity to affect Roger Smith’s conscience any more than Michael Moore could. And of course Moore’s odyssey with a film crew, undertaken to track down Smith, like much else in the film, smacks of a setup and self-fulfilling prophecies. I suspect that he wants us to laugh at his own impotence and our own as a way of goading us into action; but if that’s the case, he doesn’t even begin to show us what form that action could take.
The movie provides us with cheap feelings of moral and intellectual superiority to most of the targets of Moore’s comic venom, a varied cast of characters that includes many victims other than corporate villain Smith. Sharing Moore’s scorn, one is often made to feel as protected as a tourist in a zoo. Because ours is a period when victims are held in such contempt that they don’t even qualify as martyrs — the contemporary synonym for “martyr” being “loser” — the only way that Moore can grab us by the lapels, it seems, is to invite us to laugh at our own helplessness and self-hatred.
Writing about Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove in Partisan Review 16 years ago, Susan Sontag noted with some distress certain aspects of the film’s widespread appeal. She observed that liberal intellectuals who caught the film in previews prior to its release “marveled at its political daring, and feared that the film would run into terrible difficulties (mobs of American Legion types storming the theaters, etc). As it turned out,” she continued, “everybody, from The New Yorker to the Daily News, had kind words to say about Dr. Strangelove; there are no pickets; and the film is breaking records at the box office. Intellectuals and adolescents both love it. But the 16-year-olds who are lining up to see it understand the film, and its real virtues, better than the intellectuals, who vastly overpraise it. For Dr. Strangelove is not, in fact, a political film at all. It uses the OK targets of left liberals (the defense establishment, Texas, chewing gum, mechanization, American vulgarity) and treats them from an entirely post-political, Mad Magazine point of view. Dr. Strangelove is really a very cheerful film. . . . The end, with its matter-of-fact image of apocalypse and flip soundtrack (”We’ll Meet Again’), reassures in a curious way, for nihilism is [our] contemporary form of moral uplift. As [Chaplin’s] The Great Dictator was Popular Front nihilism for the masses, so Dr. Strangelove is nihilism for the masses, a philistine nihilism.”
I don’t think it’s entirely correct to say that Dr. Strangelove wasn’t a political film in the mid-60s. I wasn’t a 16-year-old when I first saw it, but a college junior, and I wasn’t the only one who found it deeply disturbing as well as funny; I even recall a classmate who emerged from the movie in tears, shaken to her core. But I think Sontag still has a point about how Dr. Strangelove can be read apolitically, and some of the same strictures can be applied to Roger & Me, which is even more overtly political. (One thing among others that makes it more political is that 1990 is not 1964; the current extreme timidity of the American cinema about political matters is part of the context that gives Moore’s film such a bracing edge.) And it seems to me that the remainder of Sontag’s misgivings about Dr. Strangelove apply to Roger & Me in spades.
Consider, for starters, the relationship of Roger & Me to two of the most popular pictures of last year, both of them characteristically and resolutely apolitical: Batman and Crimes and Misdemeanors. Part of the charge we get from Moore’s documentary stems from the perception that it is practically alone in offering a critical view of what’s been happening in this country. But in other respects, the degree to which Roger & Me shares feelings and attitudes of hits like Batman and Crimes and Misdemeanors — including a sort of uplifting pop nihilism — is grimly significant.
To begin with, all three movies express the conviction that our world is being run into the ground by scoundrels and lunatics, and convey a feeling of total helplessness in relation to this situation. Oddly enough, the strong public responses to all three movies suggest that if they were any less pessimistic or defeatist they’d be less popular. Wittingly or not, they all derive much of their entertainment value from somewhat cruel black humor at the expense of a frustrated and ineffectual hero — Bruce Wayne/Batman (Michael Keaton) in Batman, a serious but failed documentary maker named Cliff Stern (Woody Allen) in Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Moore himself in Roger & Me – who is less a target for ridicule than a conduit through whom ridicule can be deflected onto other victims or stooges. All three movies have a powerful, amoral villain who elicits a certain amount of uneasy envy or admiration: Jack Nicholson’s Jack Napier/Joker in Batman, Alan Alda’s smarmy TV producer in Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Roger Smith in Roger & Me. Some of the cruelty can be felt in the ways that we are asked to enjoy the Joker’s “artistic” murders and media crimes, the recounting by Cliff Stern’s sister of her humiliation by a sadistic pervert she met through a classified ad (and Stern’s horrified responses, which are telegraphed to an audience as gag lines), and the evictions of unemployed workers from their homes in Flint at Christmastime, presumably at the same time that Roger Smith is delivering his fatuous Christmas message.
Ironically, Batman is the only one of these three pictures to own up to its own perversity — in this case one winds up preferring the creativity and vitality of Jack/Joker (a virtual blood brother of Alex in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange) to the humorless rigidity of Bruce/Batman, who’s about as charismatic as J. Edgar Hoover. But Batman also happens to be the only one of the three in which the forces of “good” triumph. The other two postulate a contemporary moral crisis without investing the major victims of this crisis — the ophthalmologist’s mistress (Anjelica Huston) in Crimes and Misdemeanors, the unemployed autoworkers in Roger & Me — with the roundness and humanity that would make them more than cliched abstractions. (Moore has been quite explicit about his own rationale for this in interviews — his desire to entertain an audience, not show them the unemployment lines that they can see on the news — although he has been less forthcoming about the dehumanization that results from this strategy.) If an audience’s compassion is directly solicited by anyone, it’s by actors-filmmakers Allen and Moore, sad sacks who serve as spokespeople for a despairing but complacent audience — that “nihilism for the masses” alluded to by Sontag.
Granted, Moore’s vantage point is strictly that of the disenfranchised working class while Allen’s is that of the comfortable white bourgeoisie, and both films, unlike Batman, launch frontal attacks against the callous ruthlessness of the rich. But when it comes to audience responses, it appears that upper-middle-class viewers feel rewarded and enlightened rather than challenged or attacked by Crimes and Misdemeanors (which attacks self-interest only halfheartedly insofar as it is incapable of seeing beyond it to any alternative), and yuppie viewers don’t appear to have too much trouble laughing at their counterparts in Roger & Me. (I should add, however, that there was less laughter at a private screening that I attended, which was held mainly for Chicago executives, than there was at a press screening at the Toronto film festival.) The narcissistic anguish of Allen’s guilty ophthalmologist is what scores with the audience rather than the actual murder that occasions it (Anjelica Huston is an expedient prop, not a character one is supposed to care about), just as the witty scorn of Allen and Moore — as hapless, impotent observers — for their enemies and fellow victims alike is what one is finally asked to identify with.
One thing that makes me feel unusually conflicted about Roger & Me is that just as I think there are certain wrong reasons for liking it, I also think there are certain wrong reasons for disliking it. The mistrust and sheer hatred many of my colleagues feel for films that take strong and unambiguous political stands make it all too easy for them to seize on Moore’s shortcomings — his snobbishness and his cavalier handling of chronology — as excuses for dismissing his movie completely. Over the past couple of years, the widespread critical dismissals of Walker, Parents, and Fat Man and Little Boy, among other pictures — as well as the avoidance by critics of documentaries like Coverup: Behind the Iran Contra Affair — has tended to follow a similar pattern. The point isn’t whether or not these films are flawed — how many movies nowadays aren’t? — but whether they’re being dismissed out of hand so that the critics won’t have to deal with their contents.
Roger & Me has been canny enough to break through this barrier and engage most critics with its subject, which is entirely to its credit. If only it didn’t stoop to such cheap tactics as getting us to laugh at the warfare in Tel Aviv, played behind the closing credits, I’d have fewer qualms about it. (This slaughter becomes the punch line to the comment of Maxine, a Flint citizen trying to pump up the town’s business section, who notes that she’s going to Tel Aviv and adds, “Maybe I’ll be the minister of tourism.”) Even with those qualms, I have to admit that Moore does a much better job of reporting than a network news program might. That may not be enough, but it’s plenty for starters.