The best new experimental work I’ve seen in ages, Bill Viola’s hour-long video (1991), shot in ravishing black and white, is like a string of epiphanies generated by lush and ambiguous encounters between the natural world (basically the American southwest) and the world of dreams and sleep. The minimal stereo sound track consists chiefly of Viola’s own breathing while he sleeps and the ticking of a clock; the haunting images encompass the death of Viola’s mother and the birth of his children as well as a good many surreal events that transpire underwater and in slow motion. If I had to come up with parallels, it would be necessary to grope in contrary directions–to the works of Stan Brakhage on the one hand and to Eraserhead on the other. But the musical pulse and flow of the images and their mesmerizing beauty throughout don’t deserve cross-references–they sing and vibrate with maximal intensity on their own. This gave me much more pleasure than any Hollywood movie I’ve seen this year. Chicago Filmmakers, 1229 W. Belmont, Saturday, June 26, 8:00, 281-8788.
From the Chicago Reader (June 24, 1993). — J.R.
LAST ACTION HERO
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by John McTiernan
Written by Shane Black, David Arnott, Zak Penn, and Adam Leff
With Arnold Schwarzenegger, Austin O’Brien, Charles Dance, Anthony Quinn, Tom Noonan, Mercedes Ruehl, F. Murray Abraham, and Robert Prosky.
The word is out: Last Action Hero is an unmitigated disaster. The sound of studio panic was plainly audible in a report in the June 17 New York Times that Columbia Pictures threatened to sever all communications with the Los Angeles Times if it didn’t guarantee it would “never again run a story written or reported by Jeff Wells about (or even mentioning) this studio, its executives, or its movies.” Wells’s crime was a June 6 article in the Los Angeles Times reporting that a test-marketing preview of Last Action Hero held in Pasadena about two weeks earlier had been disappointing. The article contained “categorical denials” from several studio executives that such a screening had ever taken place, but clearly this wasn’t enough for the industry people. As Wells told the New York Times, “You’re talking about a studio in a major meltdown mode. These guys are blitzing out here.”
I read this story only hours before seeing another “disappointing” preview of Last Action Hero in Chicago, after several weeks of hearing rumors that the picture was a “mess” and in deep, deep trouble. I can’t say that the atmosphere at the preview I attended was electric, but the people around me seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as I was.
It’s interesting how a certain feeding frenzy often takes over certain portions of the media when it’s collectively decided, even before most reviewers see a picture, that it’s a clear “hit” or “miss” (with box-office potential and aesthetic interest always regarded as interchangeable). I’ve often suspected that the grapevine disaster bulletins stem in part from the exaggerated responses all big-budget monoliths now routinely elicit from the media, as well as from an unconscious collective urge to compensate for the hype lavished on other pictures. Just about everyone I know who’s seen Jurassic Park finds it only so-so, but you’d never guess that from what the media have to say about it. So it’s quite possible that some reviewers who feel queasy about having overpraised one blockbuster under pressure take out their frustration on the next blockbuster to come along.
With or without storm warnings, the media still feel obliged to pay some lip service to a movie that cost somewhere between $60 and $80 million, as Last Action Hero did. So when Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared on Larry King’s show, King naturally told us he thought Arnold’s new movie was swell. Both this knee-jerk endorsement and the New York Times story made me want to hate the movie, but obviously my reaction had nothing to do with the picture’s qualities; it was an angry response to the hysteria and heaps of millions expended on determining my response in advance.
I have to admit that Last Action Hero is clunky, starting with its title. (Why “last” and why no “the”? Did it test market better that way?) Much of the acting is poor — starting with Schwarzenegger, who’s never shown the slightest aptitude in that line. His mass appeal has always been as an object, not as a person, and his best films, including The Terminator and Total Recall, are canny enough to work this limitation into their plots. This movie has a similar aim in mind — which suggests that Schwarzenegger has a better sense of his limitations than many reviewers — but it lacks the style to bring it off.
The pacing is uneven, and overall the film is rather graceless. But if I had to pick only one of the current Big Three –Cliffhanger, Jurassic Park, or this movie–to see a second time, I’d opt for this one, warts and all, without hesitation. The relative craft and efficiency of the other two are expended on ideas and emotions that seem to me ignoble, and they’re fashioned without love or imagination. This movie, for all its confusions and unevenness, still has some lasting traces of conceptual charm and evocative fantasy. (At its best it comes closer to The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T. – a calamitous flop back in 1953 that I’ve cherished for 40 years — than to any action-adventure blockbuster that comes to mind.) Moment to moment, it often makes little sense, but in its broad strokes it can claim a certain amount of originality and audacity — even a few smudges of poetry — amidst all its untidy bric-a-brac.
It begins with an only slightly parodic movie-within-a-movie, in which New York police sergeant Jack Slater (Schwarzenegger) makes his way past a line of armed policemen encircling a building to rescue a group of kids from a monstrous villain named Ripper (Tom Noonan). The image goes out of focus, and we shift to Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien), an 11-year-old boy watching this movie in a nearly empty third-run theater on 42nd Street, who goes up to the projection booth to tell the projectionist — an old timer named Nick (Robert Prosky) — about the problem. A movie fan himself, Nick invites Danny back for a personal preview of the most recent Jack Slater feature, the fourth in a series, which is about to receive its premiere at a nearby first-run theater on Times Square.
A bit later we see Danny at school, where his teacher (Joan Plowright) describes Shakespeare’s Hamlet as “one of the first action heroes,” and Danny, impatient with the wordy prevarications of Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet in a black-and-white film clip, promptly imagines Jack Slater taking over the part. (It’s a black-and-white fantasy with color injected only to represent fire — the end of Slater’s cigar and various explosions — and a red cloak.)
Still later, Danny’s at home watching Wile E. Coyote in a Road Runner cartoon on TV, and his mother (Mercedes Ruehl), a widow, is bawling him out for skipping school to go to movies. After she leaves, Danny is accosted in the grungy hallway outside the apartment by a burglar carrying a switchblade. Danny is next seen reporting this incident in a grungy police station before joining Nick for the promised preview of Jack Slater IV. (All the interior locations so far, apart from those inside the decrepit theater, are extremely claustrophobic, making this portion of the movie rather oppressive in its airlessness.)
As his symbolic ticket of entry to the preview, Nick presents Danny with a “magic” ticket given to him over half a century ago by Harry Houdini. Jack Slater IV is set in Los Angeles, where Slater’s second cousin (Art Carney) is kidnapped by a Mafia boss (Anthony Quinn) and a dapper English crook (Charles Dance). The second cousin’s house blows up shortly after Slater arrives, and suddenly some sticks of lighted dynamite tossed at him by thugs wind up in the theater aisle. Danny, who’s been kibitzing on the action from his seat, runs from the dynamite and finds himself, thanks to his magic ticket stub, in the back of Slater’s convertible as Slater races away from the villains.
The first of many odd conversations ensues between Danny and Jack. Danny knows that he and Jack are inside a fanciful movie, while Jack perceives everything around them as reality. The dynamite tossed by the thugs at them is labeled “Acme Dynamite” — a staple (along with countless other Acme products) in Wile E. Coyote’s arsenal of weapons against the Road Runner — and the police station where Slater winds up is a gaudy and spacious postmodernist emporium with valet parking, a building from which Sharon Stone is seen emerging. Danny, who’s already seen the first part of Jack Slater IV, knows what the villains’ palatial headquarters look like and can consequently help Jack find the place. Jack appreciates this offer but resents being told he’s only fictional. Eventually things get even more complicated when the English crook intercepts the magic ticket and escapes to the “real” New York, where Jack Slater IV is about to premiere (with Schwarzenegger himself in attendance), and where Danny and Jack manage to follow him.
It’s an engaging metaphysical conceit, though one with countless loopholes. Jack has the same angry black boss (Frank McRae) in Jack Slater III and Jack Slater IV, but, unless I missed something, how he and Jack switch from the New York Police Department to the Los Angeles Police Department is never spelled out. The dialectical polarities aren’t merely “movies” versus “reality,” but also spiffy, spacious Los Angeles versus grungy, claustrophobic New York — and this notion gets conceptually confused by the movies-versus-reality idea. In the “real” New York in this movie, presumably set in the present, black-and-white movies like Screaming Mimi (1958), Curse of the Demon (1958), and The Seventh Seal (1956) — as well as Hot Blood, a color movie from the same period — are all miraculously showing on 42nd Street; it’s only slightly more plausible that Olivier’s Hamlet (1948) is being screened in school for the benefit of 11-year-olds. Yet the unreality of movies is represented not only by glamorous car crashes and Slater’s ability to put his fist through a car window without getting hurt, but also by Tina Turner appearing in Jack Slater III as the mayor of New York and by a video-store poster featuring Sylvester Stallone as the star of Terminator 2 in Jack Slater IV. (Many other Acme products also turn up, along with an animated cat detective, presumably a refugee from Who Framed Roger Rabbit.)
With this sort of happy-go-lucky carelessness defining reality and unreality alike — concepts that seem to emerge more from casual gags than from any consistent vision — incoherence periodically threatens to take over. Given all the last-minute changes (apparently standard practice now for hysterical studio executives preparing to launch summer blockbusters), incoherence should probably be considered the sine qua non of this kind of filmmaking. Certainly it’s observable in the spatial absurdities of Cliffhanger and in the sudden disappearance of most of the theme-park staff in the last half of Jurassic Park.
But the incoherence of Last Action Hero, which is much more pervasive, seems vastly preferable to the utterly cynical and predictable coherence of the bulk of Cliffhanger and Jurassic Park — a clarity that has scarcely any poetry or dream value and practically no evidence of imaginative thinking. If you try to grab hold of Last Action Hero as an articulated concept, it comes apart and not all of its jokes work. But if you attend to its dreamlike drifts, settings, and feeling for space, as well as the oddness of some of its humor, you may well find yourself entertained and amused.
It’s nothing new that the makers of Last Action Hero don’t have a clear notion of what separates movies from life, but the makers of the other summer blockbusters aren’t any better versed in reality–unless, that is, reality consists of knowing how to filch dollars from our pockets, as many of our “reality” experts in the media boringly assume. Aesthetically speaking, the confusions of this movie strike me as being far more fruitful and witty than the soulless clarity of robotic machines–those calculated but mindless products that have a tendency to make calculated but mindless robots out of spectators. As it happens, the “last action hero” is played by someone the audience has loved to identify with ever since he played a robotic machine in The Terminator. Unlike the terminator, Jack Slater doesn’t know he’s a robotic machine, but Schwarzenegger clearly does — which is more than can be said for Spielberg or Stallone.
An ode to fanatical French cinephilia in 1948–the generation immediately preceding the New Wave, to which writer-director Jean-Charles Tacchella (Cousin, cousine) belonged–this is a must-see charmer not only for crazed film buffs and Francophiles, but also for anyone wanting to follow the adventures of a passionate romantic trio of scruffy bohemians in their early 20s in a Paris that no longer exists. Like the New Wave figures who followed them, the young men in this milieu write about movies and aspire to be directors; as critic David Overbey put it, they live through film references: “They even take girls to bed talking about Howard Hawks’s women and wake up feeling like Bogart.” Much of the idealistic effort they display goes toward setting up a cineclub that shows rare films, though there’s also a certain amount of suspense involving a treasure trove of old movies the characters steal. Conventionally made, though potent and heartfelt in its feelings of personal nostalgia, this movie makes effective use of its cast of young unknowns: Thierry Fremont, Ann-Gisel Glass, and Simon de la Brosse (1987). Tacchella will introduce the film and answer questions afterward; cosponsored by the French consulate of Chicago. Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Sunday, June 20, 7:00, 281-4114.
This appeared in the June 11, 1993 issue of the Chicago Reader; I’ve also appended an irate response from a reader that appeared in a subsequent issue, along with my response. –J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Renny Harlin
Written by Michael France and Sylvester Stallone
With Sylvester Stallone, John Lithgow, Michael Rooker, Janine Turner, Rex Linn, Caroline Goodall, Leon, Paul Winfield, and Ralph Waite.
Kitsch is the daily art of our time, as the vase or the hymn was for earlier generations. For the sensibility it has that arbitrariness and importance which works take on when they are no longer noticeable elements of the environment. In America kitsch is Nature. The Rocky Mountains have resembled fake art for a century.
There is no counterconcept to kitsch. Its antagonist is not an idea but reality. To do away with kitsch it is necessary to change the landscape, as it was necessary to change the landscape of Sardinia in order to get rid of the malarial mosquito. –Harold Rosenberg, The Tradition of the New (1959)
Cliffhanger #1 (rating: four stars): Towering mountain ranges, yawning chasms, awesome expanses of stony matter, endless reaches of empty space, daunting inclines, imposing immensities that cause your jaw to drop and freeze into a painful rictus. The sound of helicopters and birds from the back as well as the front and side Dolby speakers add to your sense of measureless spaces, especially if the theater has a large auditorium. (I’d recommend McClurg Court, where I saw the preview.)
The smallness of human figures within this Olympian landscape takes some getting used to, especially for viewers who suffer from vertigo or agoraphobia. Yet the commanding, hulking, Nietzschean-superman physique of Sylvester Stallone as master mountain scaler in a series of superbly realized action and suspense set pieces makes him a worthy hero in such a setting — at least if anyone short of Zeus or Arnold Schwarzenegger can assume this mythical function. Women too play significant roles in this landscape — two as martyrs, a third as a bargaining chip between the master hero (Stallone) and master villain (John Lithgow).
The sacrificial roles played by women in this landscape — as well as the German-romantic grandeur of the landscape itself — immediately call to mind The Blue Light (1932), the first feature of Leni Riefenstahl, who became the Nazis’ major artist. A fairy tale with moral overtones much like The Blue Light, with a comparable indifference to everyday plausibility, Cliffhanger also displays similar ideological mechanisms, at least as spelled out by film historian and critic Eric Rentschler. He sees a “triad” at work in the Riefenstahl film that “functions as a central dynamic in Nazi fantasy productions,” consisting of what he calls “the elemental, the ornamental, and the instrumental.” The elemental refers to nature, while the ornamental points to a desire to see nature as art; the instrumental — less generally recognized — points to the maximized use of human beings within this aestheticized landscape, including certain sacrificial roles. For Rentschler, instrumentality culminated in German fascism’s “material domination over nature through a vast technology that stretched from the rationalized way in which an entire country was organized to an elaborate bureaucratic mechanism to a military machine, a world war, and ultimately the death camps, vast factories that recycled human bodies, pressing out of them every possible material gain before disposing of them. No doubt, the film industry played a central role in this machinery.” Although materialism is associated with evil in both The Blue Light and Cliffhanger and both movies can be said to appeal to what Rentschler calls “a romantic anticapitalism fueled by a discontent with contemporary civilization,” only the new film can be said to solicit pleasure from brutality.
Cliffhanger #2 (rating: no stars): High above the Dolomite Alps — where all of The Blue Light is set and most of Cliffhanger was filmed, though the main setting of Cliffhanger is supposed to be the Rocky Mountains — an evil band of international hijackers led by Qualen (Lithgow) and his mistress (Caroline Goodall), both English, are stealing $100 million in fresh bills from a U.S. Treasury Department cargo jet supposedly traveling from Denver to San Francisco. They’re accomplishing this task in midair, with most of the crooks waiting in another plane. A federal agent (Rex Linn) in their employ brutally kills everyone on board the cargo jet and transfers the three suitcases containing the bills to the hijackers’ plane. But due to a series of dovetailing mishaps, the suitcases fall into the mountains below, and the hijackers’ plane is forced to crash-land in the same area in the middle of a blizzard.
Using their radio they call the Rocky Mountain Rescue Team, which includes Jessie (Janine Turner), a helicopter pilot, and Hal (Michael Rooker), a mountain climber. Gabe (Stallone), an ace climber, quit his job as a member of the team almost a year before, after failing to save the life of Hal’s girlfriend, who was trapped with Hal on a mountaintop — the film’s spectacular opening sequence. Gabe tries without success to get Jessie, his own girlfriend, to leave the mountains with him, and is then shamed into joining the new rescue mission.
As soon as Gabe and Hal, who hates Gabe for the death of his girlfriend, reach the hijackers, they’re ordered at gunpoint to use their skills to retrieve the three suitcases. Their commands are given in as demeaning a manner as possible: “I want this dog on a leash. . . . Go fetch, Wonderdog.” It’s also clear that Gabe and Hal will be killed as soon as the money is recovered; for this bunch of thugs “instrumentality,” as Rentschler describes it, is a veritable way of life. We’re frequently asked to laugh at their meanness, and they show every sign of being able to share the amusement. “You want to kill me, don’t you?” Qualen says to Hal at one point. “Take a number and get in line.” A little earlier he waxes philosophical: “Kill a few people and they call you a murderer. Kill a million and they call you a conqueror. Go figure.”
In the many skirmishes between villains and members of the rescue team (which eventually includes Jessie and a male pilot), the nastiness and sadistic cruelty of the hijackers and their cheerful willingness to kill anyone who stands in their path are not only emphasized but celebrated — given diverse lyrical, poetic, humorous, and musical forms. Two separate machine-gun executions of innocent characters we’re encouraged to like are rendered like tone poems, without sound (except for music) and in slow motion. Qualen calmly and happily dispatches his own lover just after telling her, “You know what real love is? Sacrifice.” One villain delights in torturing Hal with successive kicks and slugs — all accompanied by the sort of patter that goes with a football game. (Like the ear-cutting showstopper in Reservoir Dogs, choreographed to a 70s pop song, this seems designed to make us say, “Far fucking out.”) Another villain, this one black, is impaled on a stalactite by Gabe. This list of aestheticized physical abuses is far from exhaustive, and the main point to be made about all this ecstatic violence is that it’s rendered as lovingly as the spectacular mountain vistas and Stallone’s comic-book physique — maybe more so, given the additional expressive and affective possibilities of dialogue and Dolby sound effects, which allow us to savor the full impact of every body blow, broken bone, and gunshot.
None of this, I should stress, has anything to do with the action of The Blue Light or any of Riefenstahl’s subsequent features, though it does suggest the kind of thuggery, sadism, and murder that was sanctioned and carried out by the Nazis — and that Riefenstahl was at pains to screen out in the interests of “pure,” ethereal art. The savagery here is sanctioned by another kind of institutional instrumentality, the Hollywood blockbuster; what it mainly shares with Nazi butchery is the satisfaction powerless and frustrated people gain from watching fantasies of conquest, domination, and retribution played out at length. The fact that their frustrations stem largely from the brutalities of capitalism is reflected in both the greed of the villains and the good guys’ indifference to money. But paradoxically the only kind of capitalism the movie wants to stand against is international hijacking. When it comes to the debasement of human life for the sake of profit, the film’s values are worse than those of the villains. The presumed appetite of the audience is simply for cruelty without even material profit, a desire the filmmakers are willing to exploit to the utmost.
Sometimes the film doesn’t even require the alibi of villainy to get the audience worked up, as when Gabe and Jessie are attacked by a caveful of bats. A man sitting in front of me at the preview was already cheering in the first sequence when Hal’s hapless girlfriend dropped screaming to her death — a moment that delighted him almost as much as Qualen shooting his lover after delivering his pithy one-liner.
The fantasies of the Nazis were of course played out in the real world, while the fantasies of Cliffhanger remain imaginary. Moreover, they’re imaginary events inflected by the ludicrous rules of political correctness that now inform many such entertainments, so that black men and white women are carefully cast as good guys and bad guys. Nevertheless many American fantasies of conquest, domination, and retribution — fantasies stimulated and nurtured by movies like Cliffhanger — are also carried out in the real world, where men and women, blacks and whites, are all allowed the pleasure of cheering the deaths of innocent Panamanians and Iraqis — and anyone else thought to stand in the way of what are whimsically referred to as American interests.
The degree to which movies that brutalize our sensibilities make such attitudes easier to contemplate, even easier to enjoy, can be debated, but it seems myopic to argue that there’s no relationship at all. It’s equally shortsighted to assume that the encouragement and exploitation of such attitudes in movies is necessary for an audience’s enjoyment. They certainly aren’t present in anything like this degree in Jackie Chan’s action romps or Douglas Fairbanks’s swashbucklers (Chan and Fairbanks also perform most of their death-defying stunts, unlike Stallone). The fact that we’re supposed to be awed by the cruelty as well as the stunts and the scenery is a specialty of contemporary Hollywood kitsch, and I think it tells us something about who we are.
Who are we, in fact? (According to Stallone, who collaborated on the script, this is a movie about “redemption.”)
Cliffhanger #1 would appear to be associated with the good guys and Cliffhanger #2 with the bad guys. I guess assigning most of the atrocities to villains is supposed to make the film all harmless fun. In any case, in trying to come up with a rating that strikes an average between the two movies I’ve arrived at two stars, which says that Cliffhanger is “worth seeing.” Is it? I found it an exciting and beautifully crafted piece of entertainment so barbaric that the civilization that produced it probably doesn’t deserve to survive, much less prevail.
To the editors:
I can sympathize with being anti-film violence; many people can and are (although I don’t really care myself). But in summing up, in both his full-length and capsule reviews of the film, he states that the film is “so barbaric that the civilization that produced it probably doesn’t deserve to survive, much less prevail.”
Such sophomoric earnestness. First, Jonathan as judge and jury deciding on the survival of Western civilization is a notion so barbaric, I can only beg: Mercy, Jonathan, spare us!!
Spare us, that is, your “ideas” on who should or shouldn’t survive, and stick to reviewing films. As for the evil nature of violent films, your simplistic viewpoint dilutes your thesis. There is a universe of difference between the vicarious thrill of watching what is thoroughly understood to be fake violence and cheering for the genuine article. (There may be those few barnyard animals who can’t tell the difference, and who want to practice for real what they see onscreen; they are an insignificant minority, and are completely beside the point.) The point is that the people who gawk and cheer do so for a sense of retribution and poetic justice, knowing full well it’s all in fun. These very same people would be struck dumb with horror if they knew this film were a covertly captured record of actual barbarism, because they are not barbarians; only the tiniest portion of our society fits that description. Be thankful that normal people don’t cheer when they witness real violence, Jonathan; then you’d have something to whine about.
Finally, your remark in the capsule review that the Persian gulf war was “savagery . . . celebrated . . . shamelessly . . . disgustingly” is preposterous, defaming your country, and flying in the face of about 90 percent of the nation at the time. My advice, again, is to stick to the knitting: Keep your politics out of your reviews; it’ll destroy your credibility.
David M. Marks
Jonathan Rosenbaum replies:
The actual phrase that David Marks finds preposterous is, “except for our recent turkey shoots in Panama and the Persian Gulf, savagery is seldom celebrated as shamelessly or as disgustingly.” Since he pointedly leaves out Panama, I take heart in the possibility that he doesn’t regard the wholesale slaughter of thousands of innocent Panamanian women and children as an innocent, good-natured turkey shoot — unlike, apparently, the slaughter of thousands of innocent Iraqi women and children. I guess one way it becomes possible to celebrate and cheer such events is to keep politics out of movie reviews — which helps to explain how those CNN movies “Operation Desert Storm” and “War in the Gulf” could offer some Americans so much pleasurable entertainment without their fun being spoiled. “Be thankful that normal people don’t cheer when they witness real violence,” says David Marks. Does that mean that the fall of “smart bombs” on Iraq wasn’t real violence, or does it mean, rather, that the people I saw cheering them weren’t normal?
As a truthful account of the life of Tina Turner or as a faithful adaptation of her as-told-to autobiography I, Tina, this can’t be taken too seriously. But as a powerhouse showcase for the acting talents of Angela Bassett (who plays Tina Turner) and Larry Fishburne (who plays her abusive husband Ike Turner, the musician who discovered her) and as a potent portrayal of both wife beating and the emotions that surround it (in this case, professional envy on his part and stoic acceptance of abuse on hers), it’s quite a show. As with the even sillier Lady Sings the Blues two decades ago (Diana Ross’s ridiculous depiction of Billie Holiday), which harked back to a still earlier model of musical biopic, show-biz instincts tend to triumph here as common sense and fidelity to fact disintegrate, though the handling of place and period is slightly better than what one usually finds in such enterprises, and the slant of a woman screenwriter (Kate Lanier) is also highly welcome. Directed by Brian Gibson; with Vanessa Bell Calloway, Jenifer Lewis, Phyllis Yvonne Stickney, and Khandi Alexander. Old Orchard, Ford City, Chestnut Station.