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Last updated: March 6, 1999 - other movies may have been reviewed in the daily diary at sff.net.

The Celebration

.... went to a stone strange movie. _The Celebration_, directed by Thomas Vinterberg, showing at the local art museum. Sitting in folding chairs for two hours was only part of the discomfort.

It's a good movie, but a challenge to the audience. Vintenberg signed a pact with a bunch of other directors, the Manifesto or something, where they agreed to use nothing at all fancy -- available light, plain sound pickup with no background music, hand-held camera. Add the fact that it's in Danish and German (with one character speaking English) with sometimes illegible subtitles. So you need a pretty exciting story, right?

It doesn't start out that way. It's a family reunion, celebrating the patriarch's 60th birthday, five sons and daughters with their spouses and children, or lovers. One daughter died not long ago, and we slowly infer that she committed suicide. Her twin brother is at the reunion, disturbed.

He's evidently disturbed in the psychiatric sense, too. At the large dinner table, he proposes a toast. He praises his father at some length, reminiscing, and then in the same friendly tone talks about how Dad repeatedly raped him and his sister when they were children. He walks away into the long silence.

The dinner grinds back up to speed after Mom says ah, poor Christian, he always had these problems; he was such a storyteller, and after a while he couldn't tell the truth from fiction. We had to send him to a sanitorium.

Downstairs, though, Christian is talking with the family cook, who has known him since childhood and seems to believe his fantasy. Or is it a fantasy? Could the family be caught in a web of falsehood and denial?

The story goes back and forth this way a couple of times, with expert artlessness, building to a climax that is both somewhat surprising and, in retrospect, inevitable.

Worth a look, if it should come your way. The cinematography is so harsh and direct that I was reminded of Renoir -- so much so that my memory of it this morning was in black and white, but I'm sure there were some muted colors. Red wine and blue sky.

Camille Claudel

Gay and I rented a fascinating movie, _Camille Claudel_. She was an extremely talented and stunningly beautiful artist who modeled for Rodin, then collaborated with him (evidently doing most of the hands and feet on his sculptures) and had a fiercely explosive off-and-on love affair with him, starting when she was 19 and he was 43. He discarded her when it became clear that she considered herself a rival, an equal and possibly superior artist.

I only have sketchy biographies of Claudel -- mostly footnotes to Rodin -- so it's hard to say how much of the drama in the movie actually happened in her life. Rodin's common-law wife assaulting her with a red-hot poker, burning her precious hands; her pregnancy and secret abortion, alcoholism and public indecency destroying her independent career. One thing the sources and movie agree on is that she went hopelessly insane, and spent the last 30 years (one source says 40) of her life in an asylum.

The movie is visually stunning. Isabelle Adjani has an unearthly beauty anyhow, and a wonderful madness shines through it as she plays Claudel from 19 to her forties (Adjani was 30 at the time, 1989). She was nominated for an Academy Award, which I think is rare for an actor in a subtitled foreign biopic. The camera work is very dark, faces and figures glowing. (There is lots of fine figure photography as Claudel and Rodin work feverishly with their models. I was delighted to see that Claudel was the model for my favorite Rodin nude, one we saw in the Frick two years ago. It couldn't be publicly displayed for some time because the posture was too suggestive of masturbation.) Gerard Depardieu plays Rodin well, an overbearing moody egotist with a huge sexual appetite.

Gods and Monsters

We went out to see _Gods and Monsters_ last night. Marvelous movie! It's about James Whale, director of _Frankenstein_ and _Bride of F._, who retired from filmmaking in his forties, to paint. He was openly gay a long time before it was politic or political. The story is about his unrequitable passion for a young gardener, at the end of his life, but it resonates powerfully with the themes of PTSD (he was a P.O.W. in WWI) and alienation because of his homosexuality. The "otherness" of Frankenstein's monster and its bride becoems a powerful metaphor for that.

Acting and writing are superb. Ian McKellan is remarkable as Whale, a chimerical old man who can go from pensive quietude to distorted rage in a moment. Lynn Redgrave does a wonderful turn as the demented old servant who waits on Whale and seems like a character out of one of his movies. The hunky gardener is Brendan Fraser, who was George of the Jungle. Nice job as a 50's homophobe with a twitch or two in the gay direction.

Life is Beautiful

We finally got out to see _Life is Beautiful_. A good-but-not-great movie, in my opinion. I can see what people meant when they said it got all those Oscar votes because it was the season's "movie you can feel good about voting for." Pretty low octane, compared to _Schindler's List_.

I don't agree with the people who were offended by the way the Holocaust was presented, the father trying to shield his son from the horror by acting silly and making up games. I thought that part was very effective, and not only the father's obvious hysteria, but also the numb apathy of the other prisoners watching him, worked well in implying how horrific the world just outside the walls of their billet was.

The movie has a curious structure, as if it were two short movies shot with the same main characters. It occurred to me that that's a very Italian narrative form, mimicking the Petrarchan sonnet: octave, turn, sestet. You set up a situation, and then there's a dramatic shift, and then you look at the situation a different way.

Little Voice

We saw another curious film last night, _Little Voice_. Acting superb, writing very good. Jane Horrocks plays Little Voice, "LV," a young woman so cowed by her motormouth trashy mother that she speaks in reluctant monosyllables, in a babyish squeak. She obsessively listens to her dead father's LP collection of vocalists like Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Marilyn Monroe -- and when she's alone, visualizing her dad, she can do dead-on imitations of them. Her mother (played to tooth-grinding perfection by Brenda Blethyn) brings home a shabby showbiz type -- Michael Caine doing a fine turn -- who hears LV's voice lilt during a power outage, and the fun begins, and the tragedy, and the farce. Horrocks does all of the pastiches herself, and I suspect "is" herself in the brief scene when she performs onstage. In which case, her acting is all the more remarkable when she plays LV as the terrified little girl, intimidated to the edge of autism.

I guess the film has come and gone in most theaters; we got it late in our "art" theater, the Hippodrome. If it is still around, I'd recommend it very highly.

The Mummy

Speaking of wholesale mayhem, yesterday ten of us went down to see _The Mummy_. I think everyone had the same conclusion: laff riot. It had a lot more to do with Spielberg than Karloff, but who's a purist?

I had a slight problem with implicit racism; all the stupid and immoral towelheads. But when I voiced this over pizza afterwards, someone pointed out that there were noble Arabs in the movie, too, which is true. I just didn't like the quality of the laughter. Not too long ago you would hear the same kind of laughter directed at a comical Jew or black. But maybe I'm too serious. The movie was a lark.

The special effects were cool, both the computer-generated ones and the more conventional pyrotechnics and makeup gimmicks. A cast of really good flat characters who obviously enjoyed what they were doing. Maybe ten or fifteen minutes too long, I suspect because they were reluctant to cut any of the special effects.

Next Stop Wonderland

The local art movie house had a cute and clever romance, _Next Stop Wonderland_. The plot has an austere classical simplicity: girl loses dumb boy, girl's mother sneaks ad into "Women Desiring Men" column, girl gets 64 suitors, girl meets most of them seriatim in a bar; rejects all; meanwhile, actual boy steals blowfish from Boston Aquarium to square [his] father's gambling debt whilst losing Marine Biology notes to beautiful nympho who won't give them back unless he fucks her, which he won't do unless she goes on a whale watch with him (actual boy's roommate is one of the 64 dildos, of course), and although she gets seasick she almost does rape him in the head, that is to say the boat's washroom, while meanwhile the _real_ girl comes within an inch of running off to Brazil with a smart wise handsome rich loveable stranger, and early in the morning on the Blue Line subway (which stops at Airport and Aquarium and, of course, Wonderland), boy meets girl and, because he alone correctly identifies Emerson as the foolish consistency guy, they take a walk on the beach.

It's actually a little more complicated than that, but we enjoyed it, full of interesting actors saying interesting things. It all takes place in Boston -- the first scene, in fact, was on Commonwealth Avenue, two blocks from where my poetry workshop has met for the past fifteen years -- so Gay and I got an old- home-week feeling from it. Though I'm just as glad not to be in Boston now, with single-digit temperatures and a howling blizzard.


_Tango_ was a dream of a film, on several levels. The dancing is so beautiful and so well filmed that you could forget the story and just gaze at it. But the story is marvelous.

Let me be careful not to give anything away. It becomes obvious after the first couple of scenes that we're into story-about-story. It's about people making a musical called _Tango_, which was inspired by a 30's film called _Tango_. Got that? Once you get that sorted out, you realize that sometimes you can't tell whether you're watching a movie or a musical or a movie about the making of a musical -- or whether you're in the dreams or fantasies of the man who's in charge of the musical. Or is it a movie?

It's similar to the classic _Stunt Man_, which we want to rent for comparison. But I think it's more carefully put together, for deliberate ambiguity. That is, you can interpret a series of scenes as story A, or as story B, and it really isn't important, because either POV moves the larger story right along. And the last, quiet, unexpected shot brings it all together, period, full stop, case closed.

I don't want to make it sound complicated; it's not a movie you have to figure out. But while it's extremely pleasing visually, with rrrrrrreally erotic dancing and wonderful illusory use of moving mirrors and screens -- it's also a charming intellectual puzzle, loaded with artistic and cinematic allusions.

The writing is powerful and original, even filtered through subtitles. The plot takes a breathtaking Moebius twist in the last fifteen minutes.

People will be watching and talking about this film for a long time. _Tango_ has legs.

The Thin Red Line

Maybe you can sum up everything that was wrong with _The Thin Red Line_ in one hyphenated word: "writer-director." Terence Malick wrote the script years ago, apparently, and only later decided to direct it.

A W-D film can be brilliant if the director is a brilliant writer and the writer is a brilliant director. That should be "if and only if." This one failed at least one of those criteria; I think the first.

The viewpoint of the film is handled clumsily. The first fifteen minutes is from an intimate POV inside Private Witt's head, most of it voice-over while Witt enjoys an idyllic AWOL, living with unspoiled Polynesian tribespeople. (How he manages to do that is not explained.) Then the camera leaves Witt, and we're in an objective POV, then spend a few minutes inside the Captain's head, then objective, then somebody else's head, and so forth.

A mosaic POV could work, but not this way. The first POV is maintained for too long, and subsequuently the individual POV's are just thrown in as footnotes to the objective one. It's too choppy and has a sort of lectureish quality to it -- as if the writer-director weren't sure we would completely understand a character from his words and actions, so we had to go inside his head.

That said, the acting is pretty good, especially Sean Penn and Woody Harrelson. A lot of good small roles -- over fifty speaking parts in the movie.

The military tactics were handled well, too. Very realistic, as opposed to the sappy fantasy of _Saving Private Ryan_. The weapons special effects were pretty realistic. I especially liked the constant background rumble of artillery, like an approaching storm. I remember that sharply from Vietnam, the quiet menace of it.

Malick chose to mute the wound effects; there was nothing close to the in-yer- face horror of SPR. He may have done this as a favor for the actors -- nothing upstages you like somebody's head exploding -- or to leave us in suspense, waiting for the _really horrible_ scene that never comes. I liked Spielberg's approach better, in this case.

Spielberg also had the advantage of a strong lead by a great actor. The tag line for tTRL is "Every Man Fights His Own War," which may be the key. Jim Caviezal, who as Private Witt starts out as the central character, is peripheral to most of the action, and doesn't dominate most of the scenes he's in.

The acting in general seems a little overwrought. A lot of guys weeping and wailing and hugging each other. In my war people responded to horror and terror by withdrawal. But of course the rhythms of combat were different. I was never under constant fire for more than about ten days, and the longest I was in close combat -- close enough for the enemy to throw a grenade -- was about eight hours. The guys at Guadalcanal fought for weeks on end, many of them having somehow survived years of combat in Europe. So maybe they did break down more dramatically. They were worn pretty thin, as the title implies.

Many of the incidents are drawn from the novel; some of the dialogue reproduced exactly, but necessarily big liberties are taken with the structure. The big deviation is framing the story of combat within two distinctly different pictures of life in Polynesia -- the one at the beginning a Rousseauvian Eden, the one at the end, a more naturalistic picture of the hardships of primitive life. These obviously mirror the innocence of Private Witt at the beginning and his existential despair at the end. I suppose it works for some people; both sequences are well choreographed and filmed. I think the story would have worked better without them, though.

An honest, earnest movie that should have been tightened up.


Last night Gay and I watched a tape of _Wilde_. A very enjoyable movie, though I have to admit that I'm conventional enough that the gay male love scenes made me squirm. (Which is doubly odd. It doesn't bother me to be around affectionate gay couples in person, and I've watched hard-core male porn with interest. Yet passionate kissing and softcore Hollywood-style sex made me uncomfortable.)

Stephen Fry plays a fascinating character who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to the middle-aged Wilde, but I wonder about the historical accuracy of his characterization. I always thought of Wilde as a rather hard character, tough and sarcastic. Fry's Wilde has wit, but there's a button in the end of his foil, so to speak. He's basically a hopeless romantic who is taken advantage of by his petulant boy toy Lord Douglas, and is woefully misunderstood by most and cynically exploited by the rest.

Monument Ave./The Opposite of Sex

Gay and I went to see two artsy movies last week, neither of them standouts.

Monument Ave.

_Monument Ave._ was a naturalistic answer to _Good Will Hunting_, showing how violent and pointless and bleak life actually is for young people in Charlestown, the rundown Irish neighborhood of Boston. The action seems to mimic a mob hit that happened a few years ago when Gay and I were in Cambridge. A cynical daylight rub-out in a neighborhood bar. No one saw anything. All the men in the bar claimed to be in the men's room at the time of the shooting.

The Opposite of Sex

The other was _The Opposite of Sex_, which starred the pouty angry teenager who was the subject of the photographer in _Pecker_. She did a good job of characterizing a megaslacker, pathetic and hateful at the same time. Kind of pretty in a trashy way, too, but neither factor could save a really badly written script about boring people doing unlikely things for hours on end. The structure of it, pure voice-over flashback, did work pretty well, from the point of view of this world-weary but ignorant character. But the story felt like it was generated by throwing joss sticks.