A fascinating and masterful melodrama from Japan, written by Goro Nakajima and directed by former independent Shunichi Nagasaki, that may remind you in spots of both Vertigo and Lilith, although the treatment is strictly Japanese. A Tokyo psychiatrist (Masao Kusakari) who is engaged to his receptionist (Kiwako Harada) becomes fascinated to the point of obsession with a beautiful tourist guide (Kumiko Akiyoshi) who claims to have been beaten by her lesbian lover; further events reveal that this lover is dead and that her identity is being schizophrenically re-created by the tourist guide. A film that juxtaposes two kinds of obsession and implicitly asks the spectator to determine which is sicker (or healthier); it’s all done with effective plot twists and a sure story-telling hand (1989). (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, June 1, 8:00, 443-3737)
From the Chicago Reader (May 24, 1991). — J.R.
TRUTH OR DARE
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Alek Keshishian
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Jay Dubin
Written by Andrew Dice Clay and Lenny Shulman
With Andrew Dice Clay.
“I know I’m not the best singer or the best dancer. I’m interested in pushing other people’s buttons.”
– Madonna in Truth or Dare
“I have no tolerance for anyone or anybody.”
– Andrew Dice Clay in Dice Rules
Madonna’s Truth or Dare and Andrew Dice Clay’s Dice Rules are performance films about sex and defying taboos that are clearly conceived as statements from and about their stars. The movies are radically different, but they have a few things in common: an adolescent sense of outrage spurred by adolescent fans and energies, a postmodernist reliance on movie-star models, a preoccupation with narcissism and masturbation, and a painstaking effort on the part of their stars to “explain” themselves.
Truth or Dare, which comes on as if it were truth and dare, sets out to give us both the “real” offstage Madonna, shot in grainy black and white, and the performing Madonna during her “Blond Ambition” tour, shot in color. But our sense of documentary reality is limited in a number of ways: by offscreen past-tense narration from Madonna identifying and contextualizing what we see, by jazzy crosscutting between color and black and white that prevents us from fully taking in either (occasionally the film breaks its own rules by offering brief offstage segments in color), and by Madonna’s relentless determination to theatricalize her life — or at least those parts that are lived in front of cameras.
By contrast, Dice Rules opens and closes with two blatant fictions. The first is an awkwardly staged narrative segment called “A Day in the Life,” scripted by Lenny Schulman from a story by Clay and starring Clay — “Dice,” as he’s known — who is the reverse of Clay’s stage persona. As the more familiar Clay explains to us in interpolated shots, this story is meant to show us how he got to be the way he is. Dice is a fumbling, hapless, infantile nerd, a cross between Jerry Lewis’s idiot persona and Pinky Lee, tyrannized and beaten by his monstrously obese and vicious wife (a John Waters gargoyle), and gratuitously and sadistically persecuted by everyone he encounters — a bank teller, an older Jewish friend he runs into on the street, a couple of grocery clerks (one of them Indian), a black filling-station attendant, and a fat doctor. Then he sees a leather jacket in a window display inviting him to “Be a Real Man,” and is persuaded by a store salesman (also played by Clay) that “Leather makes it happen.” (Specific allusions are made to Marlon Brando and James Dean.) When he comes home leather-jacketed and smoking a cigarette, he’s a changed man, capable of ordering his wife around, insulting her, and rendering her awed and breathless after a long, passionate kiss. (It’s a bit like one of those Charles Atlas “I was a 99-pound weakling” ads, except that at the end the hero winds up not with a curvy blond but with the same monstrous wife.)
The remainder of the film consists of Clay’s performance for 20,000 spectators at Madison Square Garden, and the second fiction is the conclusion of that performance: Clay singing a song in which he imitates Elvis and doing comic impersonations — some adroit, some not so good — of Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, Eric Roberts, Al Pacino, and John Travolta that record their responses to various animals at a zoo.
There’s another, much more subjective contrast between the Madonna and Clay movies. Even though I regard Truth or Dare as something of a con game — neither truth nor dare in any rigorous sense, but a skillful promo — I was charmed, entertained, and won over by most of it. But even though I regard Dice Rules as grotesquely straightforward about its own agenda, I found it horrifying, saddening, and ultimately sickening — though by no means uninteresting.
Broadly speaking, one might say that Madonna’s message boils down to a complex truce between love and narcissism, while Clay’s message boils down to a compound of hate and a form of narcissism that often seems indistinguishable from self-loathing. Madonna exalts and celebrates sex, identifying it with pleasure; Clay simultaneously brandishes and trashes sex, equating it with both bravado and disgust. Both performers seem unusually preoccupied with “attitude” and striking poses, and both clearly see part of their role as challenging the censors.
Madonna purports to be presenting her true self, warts and all — Madonna Louis Ciccone, who hails from a middle-class Catholic family in Detroit. Though her R-rated movie can be credited with a certain amount of candor, it’s important to bear in mind that she financed it herself and it is fully under her control. Clay, by contrast, has often insisted that the persona he presents onstage — and presents here, in a NC-17 movie — is not his true self but a fabrication; assuming that this is accurate, we have no access at all to the real Andrew Clay Silverstein, who hails from a working-class Jewish family in Brooklyn. What we get instead is “A Day in the Life,” which, apart from being the clumsiest piece of filmmaking I’ve seen this year, is striking mainly for its utter lack of believable social reality. The only allusion to his ethnic background is the Yiddish that punctuates the rap of his older Jewish friend and the urban setting, which loosely resembles Brooklyn. But the behavior that everyone exhibits, while it may illustrate some vague emotional principle, makes Jerry Lewis look like a naturalist.
Lewis, I should add, is crucial not only as a model for Clay’s nerd persona. Lewis’s Buddy Love, the vain greaser he plays in The Nutty Professor, is the principal (if unacknowledged) model for Clay’s onstage persona — leather jacket, cigarette, jewelry, manelike black hair, and all. Clay actually mentions Lewis at one point in his public performance, but pointedly not as a role model (unlike the eight non-Jewish stars he cites or imitates). Significantly, he claims that “Chicks when they have an orgasm sound like Jerry Lewis.” It’s a classic instance of the return of the repressed, because I think one can argue that it is Clay’s fear of his own femininity — or at least what he consciously or unconsciously perceives or misperceives as his own femininity — that forms the basis for his act. It’s a fear that might be said to come in two forms: fear of the ineffectual and passive Dice, who is obviously important enough to warrant a whole awkward section of this movie; and fear of the bossy, narcissistic, glamorous, and strutting Clay, whose preoccupation with his own image as a sexual object puts him within hailing distance of Madonna.
One of the hallmarks of pop postmodernism is a plundering of the past that nonetheless persuades the audience it’s watching something brand-new. This is more or less what Truth or Dare does. Many reviewers have noted that the overall look and form of the movie owe a lot to Don’t Look Back, D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary about Bob Dylan’s 1965 concert tour of England. Then there’s Madonna’s use of Marilyn Monroe as a role model, principally in her offstage manner, attire, and makeup. It’s a reductive use, paring away the multiple and contradictory levels of Monroe’s best performances (like her character’s simultaneous stupidity and guile in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), settling on the softness and vulnerability that were always the most obvious parts of the Monroe persona and which serve here mainly to counterbalance the opposite traits in Madonna’s personality.
Many of the highlights of the movie are being heralded as if nothing remotely like them has ever been seen on the screen before. This is patent nonsense, though given the enforced amnesia brought about by the media conveyor belt that passes along every “unique” product (each designed to supplant and abolish its predecessors), it’s a routine and understandable kind of nonsense. Two gay men passionately French-kissing? Check out Jack Hazan’s beautiful and long-neglected A Bigger Splash (1974), an English documentary with fictional interludes about the painter David Hockney. Madonna using a bottle of mineral water to show how she gives head? Take a look at what Jane Fonda does with a saxophone mouthpiece in Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown (1967), which happens to be playing in Chicago this week. Still, I can’t recall another movie whose heroine recites an “Ode to Farting,” so credit Madonna with a first in that department.
To my surprise, I found myself enjoying the offstage Madonna much more than the concert Madonna, largely because the material is much fresher. The numbers onstage suffer from being twice dismantled and reassembled: music videos that are “re-created” on the stage are splintered again by director Alek Keshishian’s music-video strategies; the effect is not to bring them back to square one but to serve up a third-generation spin-off. Intercutting this footage with the black-and-white documentary footage only further fragments whatever dramatic continuity the original number had. (A fancy cutter in the MTV mold, Keshishian manages his best effect in a backstage segment, when he cuts from a movement of Madonna’s masseuse to a crack of thunder outside.) Most of what we see onstage and off is about sex, but it’s debatable how sexy the numbers themselves are. The sweaty gymnastics and struck poses are more cerebral than suggestive on any visceral level; it’s the idea of stardom as orgasm more than the style or the content of the performances that constitutes the erotics — another unexpected trait that Madonna has in common with Clay.
Madonna’s aim throughout appears to be to straddle the barrier that separates the merely show-offy from the outrageous without falling squarely on either side — which may help to explain why she and her gay dancers gleefully chant that they want this to be an X-rated movie. Consequently, her solidarity with gay activists shines through the movie as a relatively unmediated sentiment, while her stance of refusing to censor her “Like a Virgin” number at a Toronto concert is undercut by whatever concessions were made to avoid getting an NC-17 rating.
I found her slinky glamour poses on her mother’s grave site a bit on the tacky side, but most of her other “outrages” are good-natured adolescent mischief — a desire to be naughty rather than dangerous (such as when she flashes her breasts at the camera while her father waits in an adjoining room for her to change clothes). And when it comes to playing mother hen to her staff, she’s responsible as well as silly. Most of the time, she’s playing the familiar star’s game of inviting you to join her pajama party while keeping aloof and exclusive, so that both positions ultimately become part of the act.
It’s easy to trash Dice Rules because the spectacle it offers is the closest thing I know in American movies to Nazi hate rallies — though I don’t know of any Nazi rallies where Jews applauded and cheered, and applauding and cheering women are quite visible in Clay’s audience. (Even the ones in the audience whom he openly objectifies — “Get up and show us your tits” — seem happy to go along.) In fact, it’s the documentary value of the shots of Clay’s enthusiastic public — a weird and significant sociological phenomenon in its own right — that earns this movie its only star from me; by contrast, the few shots of Madonna’s audience in Truth or Dare are instantly forgettable.
It’s important to bear in mind that, as Frederic Paul Smoler pointed out in the Nation last year, Clay’s routine is clearly being offered and accepted as a class statement. But going along with this gag — allowing Clay’s class to take all the heat for the misogyny and other forms of intolerance in this country — seems more than a little unfair. The damage done to women and women’s rights by the federal and state governments seems a lot more serious and lasting than the threat posed by the powerless and voiceless people who constitute Clay’s audience and cheering section. But in the case of Dice Rules, as well as in Alan Rudolph’s recent Mortal Thoughts and the new release Thelma and Louise (a movie I happen to like a lot), it’s the already exploited and already dumped-on working class that bears the full brunt of middle-class blame for the abuse of women in this culture — and those whose misogyny is more insidious and upscale are granted a free and guiltless ride.
I don’t consider myself blameless in this respect. When Presumed Innocent came out last year, I found its upscale misogyny much less deserving of censure than I do the blatant woman bashing of Dice Rules; like other middle-class people, I’m more susceptible to the iron hand when it’s cloaked in a velvet glove.
There’s a peculiar tendency in this media-happy culture to value the word or the image over the actual deed. Through some awful process of misplaced emphasis, we wind up showering more abuse on a comedian who spouts hate than we do on the actual rapists and wife beaters Clay is being held somehow responsible for, many of whose deeds go unremarked and unpunished. Clay becomes the fall guy because he’s much easier to target; the sheer coarseness of his routine, which is what endears him to his audience, is a lot more threatening to middle-class taste than Madonna’s make-believe sexual frolics with her gay dancers on her bed. But lavishing attention on him by turning him into a pariah — as the Loews theaters chain recently did by banning this movie from its 866 screens — may divert attention from the offenses that really matter.
Like most of the middle-class, I fear and despise Clay’s constituency; they remind me in many ways of the more vociferous supporters of George Wallace I encountered when I was growing up in Alabama. But when we start to single them out for blame for the worst aspects of our culture, like misogyny and racism, I think we go much too easy on ourselves and the goons we keep in office. A populist like Clay, Wallace inspired love in voters not for holding back integration but for standing in the door at the University of Alabama and pretending to hold it back — putting on a show, in other words, for frustrated, misguided people by giving voice to their rage. I’m not saying he didn’t do any damage to black people (or white people) in the process, but I doubt that he did a fraction of the harm done by J. Edgar Hoover or Ronald Reagan. What he did do was shout a lot, making him a perfect target for complacent, nonshouting Yankees who were perfectly content to go with the racist flow, as long as it had the right pedigree.
By the same token, I think it’s a bit skewed to grant to every real-life gesture Madonna makes the status of art, or to grant every performance gesture Clay makes the status of a real-life offense. I happen to agree with most of Madonna’s social agenda and disagree with all of Clay’s, but surely part of the point of the Bill of Rights is that everyone has a right to his or her opinions and attitudes, jerks included. The recent infringements on free speech on many college campuses may silence a certain number of jerks, but unless you’ve got a frighteningly efficient thought police at your disposal, you don’t get rid of opinions or attitudes by censoring them — you merely force them to go elsewhere. Dice Rules is one of those elsewheres — a Frankenstein monster that some of us may have helped to create.
Like Madonna, Clay clearly wants to be naughty and outrageous; unlike her, he isn’t interested in scaling that desire down to R-rated proportions and he’d probably lose whatever dubious singularity he has if he did. (I say “dubious” because, judging from the ten minutes I’ve seen of Eddie Murphy’s Raw — which wasn’t banned from Loews theaters — Clay is no more morally offensive than Murphy.) Consequently, Clay devotes his monologue to such topics as “bushes” (he doesn’t like them shaved or doused with cologne), “ass eating” (he impersonates Nixon doing same and grunting, “Be the pig that you are, baby”), and the contempt and malice he feels in general for women (all of whom he equates with whores), Japanese people (”Thank God for Donald Trump or the Japs would own everything,” though they do “know how to fold shirts” — a wisecrack that seems intended to show that he can’t distinguish them from the Chinese), people with disabilities (he democratically includes midgets, hunchbacks, twitchers, and stutterers in this category), and birds (he dreams of poisoning them).
What does he like? Himself (or so he claims), America (”the greatest country in the world”), funerals (”a good place to pick up chicks”), and obscene nursery rhymes. The nursery rhymes are the show’s true centerpiece; most of them are delivered in unison by the audience, giving a ritualistic feel to the proceedings that, like the rest of the performance, seems to have more to do with fellowship in bile and despair than with genuine laughter.
I’ve heard it argued that a hate mongerer like Clay can actually provoke violence against women; I’ve also heard it argued that he can prevent violence against women by allowing potential perpetrators to let off some steam. Both arguments ultimately strike me as begging the issue. In the screwed-up culture that we inhabit, all sorts of things are capable of provoking or preventing violence against women, and singling out Clay as either a scapegoat or a savior in this regard is tantamount to burying one’s head in the sand — the very option that most of the mass media is designed to offer.
Neither Truth or Dare nor Dice Rules dares to leave open any of the questions it raises. They offer themselves as flat assertions, and most reviewers follow suit by offering flat assertions about them — I have too, by assigning star ratings to each of them. How much truth is gained in the process? It’s questionable whether any of these flat assertions will alter the status of sex or tolerance or censorship or the social effects of art in anyone’s mind. At most, each movie will become a rallying point for an opposing constituency (though it’s hard to imagine that any constituency supporting Dice Rules will have a critic to call its own, unless Joe Bob Briggs decides to step forward). Eventually both movies will be forgotten, and new products will come along to make and elicit similar flat assertions. Meanwhile, as we let more movies persuade us that we’re dealing with important issues by arguing about them, more women will be raped and beaten, minorities will continue to be persecuted, and concerned citizens will call for new suspensions of the Bill of Rights.
An English feature written and directed by playwright Anthony Minghella, about a young woman (Juliet Stevenson) stricken by the death of her cellist lover (Alan Rickman) who appears to be revisited by his ghost. This comes across as an English realist variation on the sort of quasi-supernatural stories that producer Val Lewton specialized in during the 40s: that is, the supernatural elements are used to enhance the realistic psychology rather than the other way around. If the relatively prosaic Minghella, making his movie debut, lacks the suggestive poetic sensibility of Lewton, he does a fine job in capturing the contemporary everyday textures of London life, and coaxes a strong performance out of Stevenson, a longtime collaborator. Full of richly realized secondary characters and witty oddball details (e.g., the home video tastes of the dead lover’s ghostly male companions), this is a beguiling film in more ways than one. (Piper’s Alley)
A coffee shop waitress (Susan Sarandon) and a beleaguered housewife (Geena Davis) in the southern sticks take off for a weekend holiday and eventually find themselves fleeing from the law and society in a buoyant and satisfying feminist road movie directed by Ridley Scott from a script by Callie Khouri. Scott, who usually offers a style in search of a subject, makes the most of the southwestern landscapes in handsome ‘Scope framing and shows an uncharacteristic flair for comedy in fleshing out Khouri’s script with a memorable cast of male rednecks (including Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Christopher McDonald, Stephen Tobolowsky, Brad Pitt, and Timothy Carhart); his eye may get a little fancy and fussy in spots, but this is still his best picture since Blade Runner, and Sarandon and Davis bring a lot of unpredictable verve and nuance to their parts. Classic genre movies are a scarce commodity nowadays (Miami Blues is probably the most recent one), and this gutsy crime thriller and female buddy movie qualifies in spades. See it. (Ford City, Golf Glen, 900 N. Michigan, Norridge, Old Orchard, Webster Place)
From the Chicago Reader (May 17, 1991). — J.R.
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed and written by Blake Edwards
With Ellen Barkin, Jimmy Smits, JoBeth Williams, Lorraine Bracco, Tony Roberts, Perry King, Lysette Anthony, and Victoria Mahoney.
In a review of Blake Edwards’s S.O.B. ten years ago, I was skeptical enough about his reputation as a trenchant social satirist that I called him the Perry Como of slapstick. Stylistically I think the comparison still holds — Switch, Edwards’s latest comedy, bears it out with a grim vengeance — but thematically the description may do Edwards’s work less than full justice. However Hollywood-style and boringly upscale the mid-life crises of the self-regarding womanizers in 10, S.O.B., The Man Who Loved Women, and Skin Deep may be, these are still troubled and neurotic movies; not for nothing did Edwards assign partial script credit to his own psychiatrist in The Man Who Loved Women.
I’m not saying that this element of disturbance makes Edwards a better writer or director, only that it gives him certain characteristics that belie the Perry Como comparison, including a taste for the grotesque and a penchant for self-analysis. Victor/Victoria and That’s Life! show a certain sweetness in dealing with middle-aged characters, and most of Edwards’s movies at least flirt with troubled reflections about sex rather than simply coast along on their Malibu-style furnishings. The usual problem, though, is that Edwards’s movies exploit neurosis for easy laughs more often than they use it as a means for exploration. When push comes to shove, he’s seldom willing to pursue his hang-ups to the limit; so it’s hardly accidental that the biggest laughs in Skin Deep, his previous film, came from glow-in-the-dark condoms, trotted out whenever the action threatened to flag.
Given this limitation, as well as the public’s relative lack of interest in middle-aged characters — the only ones Edwards has seemed interested in recently — I can’t say that I went to Switch with high expectations. But the sheer hollowness of the movie is enough to sap anyone’s spirits. Basically devoid of characters, ideas, and even feelings, it represents a kind of zero-degree expressiveness from a writer-director known for his personal touch. I wouldn’t go so far as to call the movie impersonal; on the contrary, Edwards’s blurry scrawl is visible in some measure on every frame. Yet the thematic and stylistic signs of this scrawl never convey the slightest sense of urgency or necessity — only evidence of habit. This may be a movie that lacks even the courage of its absence of convictions, but it also looks like the informed work of someone who’s been scripting movies for 45 years and directing them for 35 — a director who, in fact, is now pushing 70. Because the satire and plot in Switch are too thin to support Edwards’s analytical preoccupations, the Perry Como mode seems fully operative on a thematic level; comatose might be an even better epithet.
I wouldn’t presume to place all the blame on Edwards, although it’s hard to imagine that this movie’s central concept had many possibilities to begin with. A younger version of Edwards’s typical middle-aged hero — a male chauvinist advertising executive named Steve Brooks (Perry King) — is murdered in a hot tub by three former girlfriends (JoBeth Williams, Lysette Anthony, and Victoria Mahoney) at a “surprise party” thrown in his honor. Winding up in a conceptual version of purgatory — i.e., an empty soundstage penetrated by a single beam of light, where he’s addressed by a deity who speaks alternately in a male and female voice — he’s told that he’s been rotten to women, and the only way he can make it to heaven is to go back to earth and see if he can find someone female who truly likes him.
Since Edwards hasn’t bothered to give this character a single redeeming quality, it isn’t at all clear why God decides to give him a second chance — the whole setup seems perfunctory. But to activate the movie’s title turnabout, the devil promptly turns up — clearly a male, unlike his upstairs bisexual counterpart, and for obscure reasons speaking with an English accent. As the hero awakes to a new day, the devil appears in his apartment and begins arguing with the offscreen God that the only legitimate way to test the hero’s redemptive powers is to turn him into a woman. Perry King then abruptly turns into Ellen Barkin, and most of the rest of the movie is devoted to charting the complications of this sex change during the remainder of Brooks’s time on earth.
Properly speaking, however, the character Barkin plays isn’t a woman at all, but a man in a woman’s body — an important distinction, and one that immediately deprives this movie of most of the goofy and interesting effects it might have explored (and which were explored, up to a point, in such earlier reincarnation comedies as Goodbye Charlie and All of Me). Barkin does a fine job of parodying male body language, and her hobbling efforts on high heels provide just about the only visual wit in the movie — something Edwards may realize, because he brings this shtick back at every opportunity — but she can’t play a character because the script hasn’t provided her with one. Steve Brooks is not a character but a stock catalog of familiar sexist abuses; apparently the comic point is the incongruity of seeing Barkin spout these abuses, but because we never know anything about Brooks apart from this behavior, it’s a premise with diminishing returns. Not even King and Barkin combined add up to a single person.
The movie has a few other figures, but none of them qualify as characters either; they exist exclusively in order to reveal certain negative traits of Brooks’s or to keep the plot in fitful motion. Brooks’s best friend Walter (Jimmy Smits) functions first as confidant and eventually as sexual threat, but never as anyone in his own right. One of the ex-girlfriends (JoBeth Williams) hangs around so Brooks can blackmail her and acquire some women’s clothes; Brooks’s boss (Tony Roberts) and another advertising executive mainly function as straight men for the hero’s cocky one-liners. Sheila Faxton (Lorraine Bracco, a long way from GoodFellas), a lesbian who runs a cosmetics company and whom Brooks-as-Barkin brashly woos in order to get an advertising account for his firm, shows some fleeting signs of becoming a character, but Edwards gets rid of her as soon as he makes his point — that Brooks is so homophobic he can’t have sex with her.
Somewhere in all of this is a simple (ultimately essentialist) feminist message that is finally spelled out in a forced sentimental conclusion. And it seems possible that Edwards sincerely believes in this message without believing in any of the elaborate stage machinery — heaven and hell, male and female characters — that he obviously thinks is necessary in order to spell it out. Perhaps part of the problem can be traced to this movie’s improbable New York setting; Edwards’s spiritual turf is so restricted to southern California that his cursory efforts to suggest Manhattan only succeed in making this feeble movie take place nowhere.