Admittedly, this 1965 adaptation of the Evelyn Waugh satire about American burial habits in general, LA’s Forest Lawn in particular, isn’t all that it could or perhaps even should have been. Still, considering the unpromising credits (Tony Richardson directing in black-and-white ‘Scope, snaggle-toothed Robert Morse as the lead) it could have been worse, and there are diverse compensations along the way (including parts by Liberace, Jonathan Winters, Milton Berle, Tab Hunter, Robert Morley, John Gielgud, and Lionel Stander). Haskell Wexler shot it, Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood adapted it, and there’s all the bad taste one would ever want to see crowded into one work on the subject. Others in the cast include Rod Steiger, Anjanette Comer, Dana Andrews, James Coburn, Margaret Leighton, and Roddy McDowall. (JR)
Alot better than one might have expected, this remake of Billy Wilder’s weakest romantic comedy of the 50s manages to minimize the jaded, dirty-old-man aspect of the sub-Lubitsch original (a flaw it shares with Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon) with better casting. Humphrey Bogart certainly had his gifts, but Harrison Ford makes a much better romantic lead as a tycoon opposite a gamine chauffeur’s daughter; and if Julia Ormond initially seems to be playing Audrey Hepburn rather than Sabrina–an impression furthered by various references to Funny Face–she eventually takes over the part for herself. Sydney Pollack directs with the sort of old-fashioned polish that was easy to take for granted two decades ago but almost looks like classicism today. With TV-talk-show host Greg Kinnear as the tycoon’s brother (originally played by William Holden), Nancy Marchand, and John Wood, in a script by Barbara Benedek and David Rayfiel, who adapted the original screenplay that Wilder, Samuel Taylor, and Ernest Lehman based on Taylor’s play. This is basically double-dealing Hollywood nonsense with all the usual dishonesty, but it goes down easily. Ford City, Golf Mill, Lincoln Village, North Riverside, Water Tower, Norridge, Old Orchard, Webster Place.
This masterful and extremely moving feature by Gianni Amelio (Open Doors, Stolen Children) is a powerful piece of storytelling that recalls some of the best Italian neorealist films. It depicts the adventures of an Italian con artist (Enrico Lo Verso) trying to set up a fake corporation in postcommunist Albania in order to get his hands on state subsidies. With his business partner, he digs up a traumatized 70-year-old former political prisoner to serve as the phony president of his phony company, but the poor creature–whose memory, like Albania’s links with the outside world, seems to have frozen a half century earlier–keeps wandering away. (Finding the old man at one point shoeless in a hospital, the hero is able to reclaim him only when the wife of another patient, silently realizing her husband will never leave his bed again, offers her husband’s shoes–a beautiful bit of silent exposition that perfectly illustrates Amelio’s uncanny gifts of suggestion and implication.) The story only grows in dimension and resonance as it proceeds, becoming an epic, multifaceted portrayal of a postcommunist Europe awakened from its slumbers by TV and consumerism–as illuminating a portrait of what’s now happening in the world as we can find in movies. As the title suggests, it also has something to do with America and what it represents for others; with Michele Placido. Music Box, Sunday, December 24, through Thursday, January 4.
From the Chicago Reader (December 22, 1995). — J.R.
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Oliver Stone
Written by Stephen J. Rivele,
Christopher Wilkinson, and Stone
With Anthony Hopkins, Joan Allen, James Woods, J.T. Walsh, Paul Sorvino, Powers Boothe, David Hyde Pierce, E.G. Marshall, Madeleine Kahn, David Paymer, and Mary Steenburgen.
Did we really win the cold war? I know that capitalism prevailed on the economic front, but I’m less sure about the cultural front. I suspect a capitalist version of Stalinist culture has triumphed rather than any sort of democracy: Stalinist culture meaning calcified, state-supported art built around solemn, hulking father figures — something like Oliver Stone’s latest two-ton Christmas turkey, Nixon. If we recognize that Disney has effectively become the federal government, the rest of the scenario falls into place. Just as Stalin’s flunkies had to praise the official “masterpieces” of Stalinist art no matter how inert or uninventive they were, Nixon’s producers (who’ve spent millions promoting the movie) have guaranteed that media savants are already describing Stone’s Nixon as a figure of Shakespearean proportions rather than the poorly cast, two-dimensional numskull decked out with a few grade-Z horror-movie traits that he is.
Toddlers have been treated a lot more like adults by the movies this year than grown-ups have. Toddlers who wanted to see eyes ripped out of a head, for instance, had no difficulty viewing the G-rated Toy Story; apparently the ratings board figured that the head belonged to a toy, and any toddler could tell the difference between a toy and a person even if the toy characters here were more believable than the human ones. Adults who wanted to see an eye squeezed out of a head in Casino, however, were not so fortunate; apparently the ratings board figured that grown-ups couldn’t be trusted to tell the difference between real and make-believe violence and insisted on giving the film an NC-17 unless cuts were made.
Another advantage to being a toddler in 1995 and seeing movies like Babe, Pocahontas, Toy Story, and Arabian Knight is that you didn’t have to sit through juvenile tributes to flawed, all-powerful daddy figures (read “leaders”). Even if such patriarchal standbys were around occasionally in these and other kids’ movies, they were generally regarded as passing icons or figures of fun, not as towering, visionary role models for teenage boys, whereas Oliver Stone in such grown-up fare as Platoon and Wall Street and JFK and Nixon pathetically fixates and depends upon such dubious figureheads. It’s a characteristic his films share with their power-worshiping models (from Citizen Kane to Patton) and counterparts (from Schindler’s List to most Stalinist epics). And, as a corollary, it appears that only big-time directors and leaders belong in the Shakespearean category; viewers and other victims of their whims don’t qualify.
Isn’t it only a matter of time before Stone or one of his successors gives us a Stalin for Christmas? Such an epic compendium of 20th-century great-man theory would explain how, sure, the man was a mass murderer and had his share of personal problems, but, hey, “he had greatness within his grasp” (the key advertising slogan for Nixon). And, poor guy, he never had all the love he needed. (It’s probably because Tricky Dick’s bossy mom was such a tough customer — even as played by Mary Steenburgen — that we invaded Cambodia; compare Born on the Fourth of July, which indirectly blames the crippled hero’s mother for his going to Vietnam.) After all, isn’t “he” (Joseph, Tricky Dicky, Charles Foster Kane, etc) just like “us” (Oliver, Steven, Orson, etc)? And isn’t Stalin therefore worthy of our awe, our pity, our compassion, and our unbounded interest — unlike his countless victims, many lying in unmarked graves, who are too boring and uncommercial for words and therefore nothing like us?
To be fair, Nixon isn’t quite as dull as most Stalinist epics (though several of them, ranging from Alexander Nevsky to The Enchanted Desna, have afforded me infinitely more pleasure). But it’s equally important to recognize that Nixon has practically nothing to say to us about the current world, unlike a genuine masterpiece like Lamerica, opening this week at the Music Box, though of course Lamerica isn’t supported by Disney’s millions. Nixon is pretentious and ugly, and its insight into human behavior can be reduced to a few hand-me-downs from other movies, so the kind of media attention and credibility it’s getting is quite simply the kind that money can buy.
Case in point: One thing we all know without even seeing Nixon is that it’s not going to ruffle the feathers of anyone who ever voted for Nixon, not in any way that matters. When Mary McCarthy argued that Nixon was being made a scapegoat for our defeat in Vietnam and that Watergate was merely a pretext, she had a point. The media made the essential facts of the Watergate burglary fully apparent to anyone who cared to notice before Nixon won his second term in a landslide. No doubt the baroque mendacity of the cover-up made him look worse, but to pretend that the American people were sincerely shocked by facts that had been staring them in the face for months is to buy into the hypocrisy that the American public wasn’t accountable for electing a crook to office. Part of Nixon’s agenda is to allow this fiction to survive without a wrinkle, apparently because you sell more tickets if you flatter your audience. (Similarly, Americans who’ve recently chosen to spend less money on education and art and more on light entertainment — even heavy light entertainment like Stone’s — can expect to be flattered for their wisdom in movies released in 2015, which will want their money too.)
Unlike Stone’s last few pictures, Nixon is released not by Warner Brothers but by Hollywood Pictures, a Disney subsidiary. Though this probably means a step down in budget, it’s fitting in another sense, because Disney gives the film the ring of “official” state art. Last summer, when Pocahontas was released, one of its many promotional spin-offs was a massive “educational” program about American history and animation techniques for schoolchildren in shopping malls, free of charge. Three years ago, Malcolm X had its own set of “study guides” to match those of JFK – and that was only Warners. Disney is the leader in reinventing history and disseminating the resulting fantasies via theme parks and toys, clearly shouldering the burden of much of our country’s educational and artistic programs, with our blessing and our full financial support.
From this standpoint, Nixon can be considered not an interpretation of our history but what will remain of that history a few years from now, shrunk to theme-park simplicities and converted into school curriculum. No wonder the published script has footnotes; because light entertainment is today’s education, today’s art, Stone’s current task is to outline the only culture we’ve agreed is worth having. He’s the prof, the artist, and the prez all rolled into one — like Nixon, the daddy we elected and deserve. It’s horrifyingly easy to imagine, a few years hence, the shot of blood oozing from Nixon’s steak in Nixon being used in schools as an example of film metaphor, standing in mainly for the four students killed by National Guardsmen at Kent State University in 1970. The students themselves are thoughtfully kept in the wings, as are all those unphotogenic Cambodians, so that Oliver’s Shakespearean gifts can properly be placed center stage.
My insides were rent suddenly with a powerful explosion, sending me skidding on my face several feet across the floor, and there was a terrific inundation! I seemed to be leaking at all pores and orifices — I couldn’t even scream! Uncle Sam let out a fearsome groan and seemed to fall away — yet he remained inside me, throbbing and exploding. I lay there on the spare-room floor, gurgling, sweating, half-senseless, bruised and swollen and stuffed like a sausage, thinking: Well, I’ve been through the fire. After this, very few, if any, difficult situations could seem insurmountable if anything personal is involved. Nothing could match this. Nothing could top it. Not without being fatal. — Robert Coover, The Public Burning
This bit of melodramatic hyperbole comes from the penultimate page of Coover’s brilliant if hysterical 1977 comic fantasy novel about the execution of the Rosenbergs in the early 50s and American cold-war madness. Newly elected vice president Richard M. Nixon narrates a good half of the book, including this passage, in appropriately sweaty, jaw-clenching style (which he seems to have learned from his favorite jaw-clenching book, Whittaker Chambers’s Witness). The ordeal he’s describing is literally being buggered by Uncle Sam — the ultimate mythical encounter, which Nixon himself might have described as the price he had to pay for his fatal date with destiny. One can almost imagine it being filmed by Quentin Tarantino, to the accompaniment of kettle drums or loud disco, at least if Tarantino took on political subjects and shared Coover’s exclusively comic vision of Nixon.
Coover’s novel is the shrewdest artistic representation of Nixon’s essence and legacy, his flamboyantly masochistic sense of noir martyrdom, that I know. But alas, Oliver Stone’s sense of humor is no better than Nixon’s, and even though he begins Nixon with the sound of kettle drums — just as we’d expect, and without a shred of irony — the handful of intentional gags sprinkled over the next 190 minutes of huffing and puffing are usually about as graceful as Nixon’s guest appearances on Laugh-In.
Nixon’s references to Citizen Kane (among them, leaping around in time over a power monger’s career, the camera crawling up a fence, a newsreel suddenly ending with an abrasive sound distortion) are another reason I find the movie ludicrous: they’re Stone’s way of saying “Goddamn it, I have greatness within my grasp.” And the less Stone has to say, the more he raises his voice. Even more pretentious is Stone telling Peter Biskind in Premiere that “we looked at Eisenstein movies — Ivan the Terrible and Alexander Nevsky.” Maybe he did, but he sure as hell didn’t study them for their compositions or editing: Nixon is as visually lazy and scattershot as the MTV montages in Natural Born Killers. Stone’s idea of innovative filmmaking is to recount part of Nixon’s early political career in a fake black-and-white March of Time newsreel (again, trying to remind us of Kane) in an anachronistic ‘Scope format. Of course, once this newsreel gets panned and scanned for video next year it will be reduced to something approaching the original screen ratio of The March of Time, which will improve its credibility, a process that will also compress Stone’s sprawling compositions. Nixon is perhaps a first in film history, a movie that can only be improved by the visual degradation the video marketplace requires.
A good many key moments in Nixon are Wellesian low angles of Nixon (Anthony Hopkins) in the White House standing under paintings of other presidents and making pithy remarks about them. The last and most important of these moments occurs under the painting of John F. Kennedy, when Nixon says, “When they look at you, they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are.” (A footnote to this line in the published script credits the phrasing to journalist Tom Wicker.) Sorry, but when I look at Nixon I see a sleazy politician, and when I look at Kennedy I see a sleazy politician with more money and a better haircut. I’m willing to concede, however, that when Stone looks at these presidents he sees something else. Why not? Like them, he’s in the business of make-believe.
Although Stone turned against Nixon for his Vietnam policies (though he started out as a staunch supporter), he’s been making quite a meal lately of his identification with the man. Maybe he has a point: I find Stone’s script for Midnight Express every bit as dishonest and demagogic as Nixon’s Checkers speech, and a parallel could perhaps be drawn between JFK and Nixon’s early career as a McCarthyite cold warrior greedy for headlines. This connection doesn’t make either man any more interesting or likable, but perhaps it explains why Stone personally barred hundreds of journalists from press screenings of Nixon: remember Nixon’s famous “enemies list”? (There were only seven or eight other people present at the one I attended, in the largest auditorium at Pipers Alley). Presumably Stone felt burned by all the political writers who attacked JFK, some of them no doubt unfairly, even though the front-page news coverage — the kind also associated with Stalinist epics — certainly helped business.
I doubt that Nixon will make as much money as JFK or Natural Born Killers because it lacks the former’s sense of scandal and the latter’s sex and violence. At most there’s the usual flurry of four-letter words and a glancing effort to use J. Edgar Hoover (Bob Hoskins) for a homophobic gag or two. But thanks to its promotional budget, newspapers and magazines have already commissioned dozens of “think” pieces about Nixon — not because anyone (including Stone and his cowriters) has anything new to say but because when it comes to money in this culture Newsweek and the New York Review of Books have the same intellectual priorities. (Lamerica may have powerful insights about the collapse of communism and the influx of capitalist carpetbaggers, but the fact that it’s set in Albania — Albania! — clearly makes it as unworthy of our attention as a dead Cambodian.)
To its credit, Nixon offers just about the only female performances I’ve liked in a Stone movie — at least Joan Allen as Pat Nixon and Madeleine Kahn as Martha Mitchell have some depth. Anthony Hopkins, to his credit, manages to mimic Nixon’s voice and fake smile effectively some of the time. But the rest of the time he’s so unlike Nixon that if the script had offered Hopkins enough material this could have been a Brechtian performance like Clint Eastwood’s as John Huston in White Hunter, Black Heart, an opportunity for the audience to think through the actor’s commentary on the character. But this film’s partial critique of Nixon remains no more than a crude cartoon.
Despite his desire to be linked to uncommercial and intellectual artists like Welles and Eisenstein, Stone remains a clodhopping exploitation director. Nevertheless he has a keen sense of journalistic occasion that has served him well. This time he uses it to ask us to shed a tear or two for a crooked, tacky politician who wouldn’t have blinked twice if any of us had been run over by a fleet of trucks — and Stone asks us to weep not out of Christian charity but because he blindly worships power and needs his daddy figures despite their flaws. (In Platoon and Wall Street, when the bad father is discarded he’s replaced by the good one; the idea of living without fathers, like other grown-ups, seems beyond Stone’s range.) He invites us to forgive Nixon for his monstrosity, arguing that we’re equally monstrous ourselves.
It’s an invitation I’d like to decline. Isn’t the fact that Gerald Ford pardoned the son of a bitch enough? One can shed only so many tears, and considering all the unnecessary tears Nixon caused others over his long, vindictive, remorseless, ungenerous career — tears of anguish, shame, horror, loss, and rage — I’ll save my tears for his victims, the folks the Disney syllabus is unlikely to advertise.
A kind of ten-best meditation for Artforum, December 1995 (vol. 34, issue 4), that anticipates some of my arguments in my subsequent book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See. Incidentally, I’ve since then come to value Showgirls (and, more generally, Paul Verhoeven) far more than I did 15 years ago, politically and otherwise. — J.R.
In October I compiled three lists for my own schizoid edification. The first consisted of the 50 best films I had seen this year at festivals in Berlin, Cannes, Locarno, and Toronto and as a member of the New York Film Festival selection committee (which entailed a screening of 100 more films in August). The second was my impression of what comprised the 50 most discussed films released in the United States this year; my third list was a selection of what I considered the 20 most important releases, whether they were widely discussed or not. Only one feature appears on all three lists — Todd Haynes’ Safe.
One reason for the lack of overlap between my three lists is that, unless it’s a big-studio product, a film usually takes at least a year to open commercially in the United States after its premiere at festivals, ensuring that we remain something of a last-stop backwater when it comes to most non-Hollywood movies. And a significant contributing factor to this state of affairs is the eye of the needle represented by reviews in The New York Times, which, in the minds of most distributors, all films must pass through before they can make it in markets outside New York. For those who wonder why the New York Film Festival showcases only 20-odd programs compared with the hundreds found at other major festivals, I suspect that the capacities of the Times have something (if not everything) to do with this. Similar forces are at work in the launchings given to American independent features at Sundance — an event partially sponsored (albeit quietly) by the Times, thereby enabling it to offer its disinterested, “in-depth” daily coverage of the annual sellouts of independent filmmakers to studio agents in a ski-resort setting while discreetly fueling the same process from the wings — a packaging combo that offers a neat corporate alternative to recently gutted NEA funding.
Ever since sex, lies, and videotape six years ago, a central part of the spurious Sundance jive is the notion that independents can only triumph as artists if they land big-studio contracts. A simple look at the mainstream debuts of Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith (Desperado and Mallrats, respectively — not to mention the horrific forthcoming Four Rooms (by four Sundance alumnae) should disabuse most people of this crippling myth, but considering how much vested interest the studios have in its perpetuation, the same homilies get trotted out by obliging journalists in spite of all the contrary evidence. (How many even noticed that Rodriguez’s El Mariachi was a tragic parable about losing one’s status as an independent, working-class folk artist, or that Smith’s Clerks was in part a comedy about proletarian revenge? Take away their class trimmings and you get the dispiriting second features of both filmmakers.)
On the other hand, Todd Haynes has clearly taken a major step forward despite continuing to work without studio backing. Working with a poetry of absence evocative of both Chantal Akerman and Michelangelo Antonioni in the upscale suburban reaches of the San Fernando Valley, where overstuffed living rooms and manicured gardens are made to seem as vast and as hollow as city railway terminals, and the sound track is no less instrumental in creating a sharp sense of distance and displacement, Haynes creates a glowering atmosphere of nameless dread that, along with the heroine played by Julianne Moore, most reviewers have felt obliged to name — generally calling it “environmental illness” — if only to assign this movie a coherent narrative curve. Fortunately, even with its false-happy ending, the mystery goes on being mysterious, and potentially lethal to boot. Unlike Exotica — Atom Egoyan’s cuddly and pornographic fantasy about incest and erotic loss, Canadian to the core in its hothouse claustrophobia — Safe didn’t make it into many malls, but it haunted one’s experiences of those places just the same.
Two film reviews from this year epitomize the myopic effect of self-fulfilling business prophecies on the critical apparatus of film culture. In USA Today, a review of Crimson Tide noted that, even though the movie was an all-too-familiar rehash of cold war thrillers, there was obviously a brain behind it (duly noted as that of Quentin Tarantino, who did an uncredited polish of the script) because of all the Star Trek references in the dialogue. The second fragment comes from the Times‘ review of Larry Clark’s Kids and was quoted in many of the origina ads, which is where I encountered it: “A wake-up call to the world.”
Consider the respective definitions of “brain” and “world” implied here. I especially treasure the ringing clarity of “a wake-up call to the world”; it draws a firm line in the sand and declares that rice paddy workers everywhere — or at least those with phones — should lay down their hoes and stop evading the problems of white Manhattan teenagers. And in case anyone’s still wondering how a slightly better-than-average, sour, and cautionary youth-exploitation item could galvanize the same media that studiously ignored most of the best movies released this year — to the extent that one major news weekly could inform its first-string reviewer in advance that Kids was one of the only movies at Cannes worthy of any coverage — at least four interlocking factors come into play: the hysteria of American puritanism, a distributor (Miramax) that often knows precisely how to milk such hysteria in the name of esthetics (though it was less lucky with Priest, which it whimsically planned to open on Good Friday), a “special” Sundance preview held at midnight to foster a proper journalistic sense of melodrama, and a paper like the Times already primed to go for such middle-class bait.
Though it’s seldom noted, the degree to which institutions like the Times, Miramax, and Sundance set our current critical agendas (including our canons) and crowd out others is hard to ignore. All three institutions had a lot to do with the launching of Tarantino as well as Kids, not to mention the even less interesting Brothers McMullen, which apparently thrilled some viewers because it reminded them of Woody Allen (another Times favorite distributed by Miramax, though not a Sundance regular). The fact that Miramax dwarfs all competitors in terms of its acquisitions power and ad budgets — spending as much money, for instance, on hyping Pulp Fiction as on producing it (which undermines part of that movie’s credibility as a grassroots cult sensation) — might be relatively innocuous if the company didn’t dump or revise so many of its best pictures, including Richard Williams’ Arabian Knight, Abbas Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees, and Charles Burnett’s The Glass Shield. The first two — an eclectic animated feature of compulsive two-dimensionality worked on as a labor of love since the ’60s, and the first Iranian feature ever distributed in the United States, made by the greatest of all Iranian filmmakers, respectively — were virtually shot down at the start, implying a certain company bias against Persian miniatures. After purchasing and sloppily completing Arabian Knight without any input from Williams, Miramax opened it with silly ads comparing it to Aladdin and no press shows at all. The Kiarostami film — while perhaps not as interesting a film as his Homework, Close Up, and And Life Goes On . . . (which also deal with the potent theme of interchanges between filmmakers and ordinary people), still arguably superior to everything else on Miramax’s recent slate and a superb introduction to his cosmic view of landscape and witty sense of character — was similarly treated as if it were a worthless embarrassment, and it was scarcely a surprise to find most of the mainstream press passively agreeing that it should be ignored. (When the Music Box, a prominent Chicago art house, had the temerity to try booking Through the Olive Trees anyway, it was summarily rebuffed by Miramax.)
No less a case in point were the parallel treatments accorded by Miramax to Paul Auster and Wayne Wang’s Smoke, with its flattering view of good-hearted middle-class whites saving the souls of poor blacks in Brooklyn, and The Glass Shield, which sorrowfully and persuasively demonstrates the price to be paid when a black rookie cop in L.A., desperate for acceptance in an all-white precinct, perjures another black man. Smoke was treated as a gilt-edged art house item, earmarked for “thoughtful” white patrons, whereas the second was test-marketed with black teenagers in the Bronx, whose predictable complaints obligle Burnett to come up with a more “upbeat” ending to get his picture released. Undoubtedly flawed in its top-heavy plot in a way that Smoke (or Burnett’s wonderful subsequent short When It Rains) is not, The Glass Shield is still honest about the way we live and maintains an integrity of purpose that makes Smoke register at best like a seductive lie. Compare, for instance, Lori Petty’s fresh and offbeat performance as a Jewish cop in Shield with the work of such normally gifted players as Stockard Channing and Ashley Judd in Smoke. (Petty also brought distinction to Rachel Talalay’s goofy and neglected Tank Girl.) Indeed, if Smoke, with its soupcon of plantation-house paternalism, had been test-marketed like Shield with the same ghetto teenagers, they might have conceivably torn the screen off the wall.
The arrogant expedience of assuming that African and Taiwanese cinema, for example, are negligible if they are ignored by Miramax and other big distributors is another creepy symptom of our insulated isolationism. Such impulses — and today’s movie culture is full of them — are ultimately reducible to the Reaganite economic philosophy of exhausting existing markets without investing in any potential future ones, yielding the self-protective gestures of critics periodically announcing the “collapse” of European cinema and happily accepting the limitations of distributors as reliable indices of the state of world cinema. What such provincialism has already fostered in American movies is a certain stroking of the spectator’s alleged savvy and hipness in recognizing certain TV touchstones — providing much of the basis for last year’s Pulp Fiction, Natural Born Killers, and Forrest Gump, and this year’s The Brady Bunch Movie and Crimson Tide.
Of course, it’s a truism that films with reduced promotional budgets, regardless of their quality, tend to get marginalized. But the capacity of these films to reach their intended audiences anyway is greater than one might initially suspect. Tony Gatlif’s Latcho Drom, a formally and politically radical Gypsy musical, confounding the standard industry wisdom that the genre is a dead form, attracted short shrift from most of the press but enough word of mouth to spark several return engagements. Like Jacques Tati’s equally overlooked Parade of 1974, the movie boldly breaks down the usual distinctions between documentary and fiction, between performer and audience, and even between finishing a given sequence and starting another. Mark Malone’s Bulletproof Heart, a virtual inversion of Pulp Fiction that puts the pain back into hitman murder while sustaining a related form of play with narrative form and actors (Anthony LaPaglia, Mimi Rogers, Peter Boyle, and Matt Craven), was similarly rebuffed in the mainstream press but enjoyed by many who sought it out. Interestingly enough, Bosnian director Emir Kusturica’s Arizona Dream and French director André Téchiné’s Wild Reeds both benefited from opening outside New York, arriving in Manhattan only after garnering plenty of raves elsewhere. The first, which Warner Communications prematurely shelved back in 1993, enlists Johnny Depp, Jerry Lewis, Vincent Gallo, Lili Taylor, and Faye Dunaway in a black comedy about American dreams and two terminally dysfunctional families; the film is a good illustration that many European filmmakers who use this country as a site for fantasies at least know they’re dreaming. Wild Reeds, set in southwest France in 1962, shows another European — Téchiné, peaking in his 12th feature — looking back with honesty, urgency, and warmth at aspects of his own adolescence.
Many of my other favorite releases of the year were mixed bags, but there were still plenty of reasons for seeing them. The Addiction wedded Abel Ferrara’s beautifully intense direction in nocturnal black and white with one of the dumbest scripts ever written; Clint Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County worked a few aural and visual wonders with its own dubious literary source. Yim Ho carved out a crime melodrama, The Day tbe Sun Turned Cold, that was worthy of John Frankenheimer in the ’60s, and, with Germany Year 90 Nine Zero, Jean-Luc Godard went on being Jean-Luc Godard (for whom the disassembly of the Berlin Wall coincided tragically with the last days of Lemmy Caution). From a plastic arts perspective, the most notable filmic achievements included Jon Jost’s monumental diptych compositions in The Bed You Sleep In, most of them corresponding to various thematic duplicities (and resulting alienations); the inspired art direction of Bob Balaban’s The Last Good Time (and the sheer life-sculptured earthiness of Lionel Stander in his last screen performance); the exemplary analysis of an artist’s relation to his work in Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb; the extended historical footnotes to a single jazz photograph (taken in 1958 by Art Kane) in Jean Bach’s A Great Day in Harlem; some eerie work with subjective camera and color filters in Steven Soderbergh’s The Underneath; and the Stan Brakhage-like credits sequence and the designer-vomit interiors in David Fincher’s Seven. And at least there was the inspiring implication of the commercial flop of Paul Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas’ blowsy Showgirls: that you can underestimate the taste of the American public, especially when self-loathing is the main bill of fare.