Another Day in Paradise directed by Larry Clark
Levi’s new tv ad features a pig-faced young actress who might have been in Larry Clark’s odious, factitious debut film Kids. She stares into the camera, bright and insolent, giving an insipid political testimony: “I think you ought to work for what you get. Like a big house, nobody should give that to you.” This harsh, out-of-place social maxim–crudely spoken with a smirk–exploits fringe ideology (the Levi’s campaign contrives oddball individuality). It could be endorsed by the Village Voice as pomo boho or, elsewhere, as brazen prerogative. Still, it’s specious. The girl’s short-cropped, white-dyed hair contrasting her round cheeks and dumpling features is just a neo-punk look, both severe and pampered–Archie Bunker’s granddaughter. It’s an attitude advertisers have picked up from contemporary art photography that uses transgressive style as a hip mode.
So it takes professional, committed, recognizable actors like Melanie Griffith and James Woods, the stars of Another Day in Paradise, to ensure some semblance of credibility past
the tendency toward teen and class exploitation. It’s doubtful that Clark will ever get his chickenhawk cinema right (unless that’s the kind of cinema you’re looking for) any more than Levi’s will ever promote compassion. Clark pushes Gus Van Sant’s old esthetic: slumming via underclass concupiscence. This approach is so suspicious (replete with a white-negro r&b and blues
soundtrack) that its Hollywoodization in Another Day in Paradise provides welcome distance from specious realism.
Sneak thief Bobbie (Vincent Kartheiser) is introduced half-nude and wasted in bed with his smack-addicted girlfriend Rosie (Natasha Gregson Wagner). He trudges his way toward robbing
a vending machine–the phoniest, most gratuitously gory murder/robbery since Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Then these delinquents-in-the-woods run off until they’re soon “adopted” by an older pair of lowlifes: the druggie thief Mel (James Woods) and his woman, Sidney (Griffith), and together the quartet motors through the Midwest in a black Eldorado looking for marks.
Another nuclear family parody (apparently a favorite topic in 90s Hollywood), this one’s better than Boogie Nights, though basically the same facile sentiments are apparent. Bobbie looks to Mel as buddy and father, their dynamics replaying the proverbial abused tenderness and miscommunication. (“What did I do to make you do this to me?” is the key line.) At points Mel and Bobbie’s dysfunction has classic resonance–so many mentorships being fragile and misaligned–but the film’s essential bad-boy mode misses the authenticity of, say, Last
Exit to Brooklyn (the ne plus ultra of the Clark/Van Sant esthetic). Bobbie and Mel’s relationship also lacks the insight that Tony Kaye and Edward Norton realized in the best scene of American History X, where the son learns from the father a common but twisted way to live in the world.
Clark is enthralled by low-class idiosyncrasies and habits, as if mean living were the essence of living–a particular middle-class fantasy that Woods and Griffith probably share, and
which no doubt strikes naive Gen-Xers Kartheiser and Gregson Wagner as unquestionable. But I trust these actors’ sincerity the way I question Clark’s proclivity and the non-actors’ culpability in Kids and (the Clark-Van Sant influenced) Gummo. Brecht would approve of the distance and instruction that these trained actors automatically imply in the ignorant lifestyles they represent and the desperate emotions they take on. They make this backroads tour of American immorality less freakily grotesque–giving it an accessible balance of humor and tragedy. If the film’s slapstick happy ending recalls Five Easy Pieces that’s because Woods and Griffith evoke a moral empathy rare in Clark’s universe. (The background use of Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand” also adds a fitting class perspective.) There’s more integrity in these actors’ identification with society’s vanquished than in Clark’s porno-anthropology.
Griffith portrays a particular feminine paranoia and suffering (the grown-up correlative to Gregson Wagner’s junkie Winona). Sidney wears her hurt on her face; full, glossy lips and perfect
mascara and eyeliner make her psychic wounds seem painted over. Staring at middle age, she’s seen at least that much of life from living with an erratic, dangerous man, and her face, of necessity, becomes her armor. That actressy mask almost provided a characterization in Celebrity until Woody Allen turned the plot against Griffith (and all the female characters). Clark is probably so fascinated by Griffith’s history of teen exploitation and survival that he takes to documenting her neuroses; thus, she’s transparent enough–actress enough–to reveal the struggling, conflicted, anxious woman underneath the showbiz mask.
You’d expect to douse that Levi’s chick with her own Perrier at the Blue Water Grill, but former nymphet Griffith stands in for every mature woman who has clung to the art of
feminine wiles not as brazen prerogative but as a social defense. Griffith’s face seems to swell with exhaustion and compassion. The context is close to Jeff Bridges’ working-class verite junkie in American Heart, but Griffith’s verisimilitude transcends genre the way the always estimable Bridges did not (he was better at prole authenticity opposite Jane Fonda in The Morning After). Maybe Griffith rose to this level of sincerity opposite the always intense Woods (his asshole schtick, though proficient as ever, has stopped being enlightening). Her quiet consistency is spellbinding. She makes this losers’ panorama better than the lower-depths exploitation Clark generally presents by preserving–yes–some sentimental decency. Because you can see a private terror in Sidney’s eyes and wrinkles, her humanity is affirmed beyond Clark’s contrived plot.
For the others, this Drugstore Cowboy rehash is only adequately performed–they go the Cassavetes route of genuine emotional investment. But Griffith succeeds where the perspectives
of Clark (and lately Van Sant) misrepresent white underclass or criminal-class drudgery. Sidney would never say, “Nobody should give you a big house.” The sparkle in her jaded eye suggests that she respects such a precious, fundamental dream. She’s a classic American dreamer who grieves Rosie’s misspent youth and gives Bobbie a second chance–a chance to escape.
Sidney’s humane gesture is also a political act. What looks like latent maternal instinct (the cliche of Julianne Moore’s role in Boogie Nights) makes better sense here because Sidney more closely identifies with Bobbie’s vulnerability than Rosie’s wastrel punkette. That’s called original insight into character–the British actresses in Hilary and Jackie don’t show it (for all their
showing off) and Fernanda Montenegro does something much more conventional and tired in Central Station. But Griffith has often shown this underappreciated gift–it nearly redeemed Mike Nichols’ dishonest Working Girl and it proved to be the heart of De Palma’s complex porno satire Body Double. Griffith’s integrity can’t be taught (she had it ever since Night Moves and The Drowning Pool and even such unlikely films as A Stranger Among Us and Milk Money). It’s also hard for some to discern, but in Another Day in Paradise, Griffith’s ravaged humanity is beautiful to behold.
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