Find Solace in Techine’s Wild Reeds or Renoir’s The River, but Stay Away from Glitter

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.


"The hardest
thing is that life goes on," one friend says to another in Wild Reeds,
the finest European film of the 1990s and an epitaph for everyone’s innocence.
That line could be taken cynically or optimistically, but its ambiguous truth
resounded–repeatedly–over the past two weeks. I’ll spare you
more cheap musings on the meanings of film and reality occasioned by the WTC
bombing; recent events simply bear out the fact that our constant desensitizing
by media has not helped us assimilate grief or handle terror. Living in a Michael
Bay culture–call him the premier Desert Storm auteur–only means we’ve
become connoisseurs of disaster. (The best point I’ve read on this has
been Elvis Mitchell’s suggestion that Independence Day was a possible
inspiration to terrorists.) The taste for seeing people blown away has backfired
horribly. That’s not just gypsum still burning and singeing the city. Hollywood
thrills have become ashes on the tongue, the taste of real flesh.


I won’t
make the apology of many hand-wringing culture writers who confess how superficial
their work now seems to them; that’s as fulsome as Arnold Schwarzenegger
holding back Collateral Damage, pretending that there is an appropriate
time to sell mayhem as entertainment. Critiquing culture is my way of defending
its importance, and dealing with movies has never stopped being relevant. It’s
a way to understand life and perception–as when Millimeter magazine
reporter Dan Ochiva made poetry by simply remarking of tv’s heavy-rotation
towers footage, "The sky was so blue it must be blue screen." Only
God and diligent criticism will see us through that bewilderment. As therapy,
try Andre Techine’s Wild Reeds–or maybe Jean Renoir’s
The River for the scene following a tragedy when a child complains, "We
carry on as if nothing happened!" And a parent explains, "Because
all we can do is carry on."


Glitter
Directed
by Vondie Curtis Hall



Eager to please,
Mariah Carey beams a bright, little-girl smile in Glitter. But she’s
also anxious to be admired–just the kind of precociousness that gets on
people’s nerves. Audiences at the film’s press screening came armed
with snickers (not the candy bar). And they guffawed almost throughout, pausing
only to sigh and applaud at two brief location shots of the World Trade Center.
Their need to feel superior to something isn’t just an aberrant response
to the WTC bombings but part of the same snide pop-culture reflex that caused
the millions of people who bought Milli Vanilli records to suddenly develop
compound amnesia/homophobia. By no means the worst film this year–Blow,
Moulin Rouge
, Pearl Harbor, Memento, Rock Star and
several others are more offensive–Glitter is merely lame. Yet it
plays right into the public’s viciousness. It feeds envious fans’
desires to bare their fangs.


Director Vondie
Curtis Hall opens with an awkward, mistimed scene of an alcoholic black woman
slurring her way through a nightclub performance and then forcing her blonde,
prepubescent daughter to come onstage to sing with her. Nothing in this introduction
of little Billie Frank before she becomes a glittery "musical, singing
sensation" plays right. Its instant dose of misery immediately diminishes
movie-musical expectations. Hopes sink as Glitter presents Carey in precious
few musical numbers, just a laggardly, obvious rise-to-success story borrowed
from A Star Is Born, Mahogany, Purple Rain and The Bodyguard.


Last month’s
rerelease of Funny Girl revealed an old-fashioned and prosaic plot designed
with one purpose–to present a showcase for Barbra Streisand, another star
whose egotism kicks in to cover up vulnerability. But Hall and screenwriter
Kate Lanier seem unaware of how showbiz struggle looks and feels, or how audiences
relate to Mariah Carey. Glitter too frivolously presents biracial Billie
announcing "I’m mixed" without grounding the movie in a celebration
of the story’s 80s-set multiracial culture or the crossover emotions heard
in pop music. Instead, the movie gets solemn rather than provocative–unlike
Prince in Purple Rain, playing with mixed parentage and ultimately fusing
race and sex divisions. Carey herself might have dissolved all complexity, same
as her recording career to this point exults in it, projecting r&b melodies
and biracial insouciance. With her child’s face in a teenage girl
body (needlessly accessorized with zigzags of silver body paint), Carey displays
that large emotional quality some pop singers have over actors. She comes with
her own starshine (blazoning one style of race-mixing) but Hall showcases this
gift only once: when a disco DJ, Dice (Max Beesley), finds Billie on the crowded
dance floor, hands her a mic and she extemporizes for half a verse. At that
point Carey rouses joy in performing. And she’s already a better actress
than Madonna because her singing actually expresses something. (Scenes
in which Billie gets nervous because Eric Benet asks her to record a song with
him show the best acting. After all, Carey has sold a few more records than
Eric Benet.)


Glitter
wastes its only assets–Carey and Terrence Howard (playing a villainous
record producer with excitement in his eyes). It also misses the opportunity
to mythologize what Carey knows about showbiz politics, interracial confusion
and the love of singing. Carey doesn’t betray her audience the way Mark
Wahlberg does fronting the bogus career mythology of Rock Star. Billie’s
self-written lament ("Dear God it is so tragic/And I never had the closure
that I ultimately need") and her cat-hugging sensitivity might be maudlin,
but they aren’t dishonest. Nothing in Glitter is so insulting as
Rock Star’s lie about the democracy of stardom. The mother-child
reunion stuff may be old as silent melodrama, but why withhold the reunion duet?
If anyone connected with this film knew half as much about movies as sample-mad
Carey does about recordmaking, Glitter might have sparkled.


Our
Lady of The Assassins

Directed
by Barbet Schroeder



Our Lady
of the Assassins
is Barbet Schroeder’s end-of-the-world movie. It doesn’t
take terrorist attacks–or a war–to expose it as facile and insufficient.
The disposition is bourgeois pessimism, expressed by Fernando (German Jaramillo),
a middle-aged novelist who returns to his Medellin, Colombia, hometown, where
he observes society’s soul destroyed by the drug trade. (Nightly fireworks
celebrate new coke shipments.) A soured Catholic, Fernando identifies with soullessness.
At a gay brothel he picks up a teenager, Alexis (Anderson Ballesteros), who
gives him a guided tour of the new Medellin where street boys carry guns, drugs
and vendettas. Alexis is ready to kill anyone–even Fernando’s neighbor,
who makes too much noise. Fernando wearily challenges Alexis to "distinguish
between thought and action. What separates them is called civilization."


Schroeder himself
might consider distinguishing a critique of decadence from flaunting it. Our
Lady
is poised between satire and indulgence, causing some critics to mistake
its cold view of brutality and dehumanized modern life as Buñuelian.
But Schroeder (who uses Fernando as another of his debauched privileged protagonists–from
Idi Amin Dada to Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune) is more
like a self-pitying Buñuel. His alter egos see the world from a skewed
perspective that allows them to enjoy the benefits of social decay while musing
on its irritations. ("I need enemies so they can watch me eat.") Fernando
scolds peasant women weeping for youngsters gunned down in the street by firing
off his own litany of high-flown elitist disdain, yet Buñuel wouldn’t
have let him seem so superior. Posed opposite bound-and-tortured martyr statuary,
Fernando is meant to represent modern, enlightened sorrow. His education and
religious training sharpen his wit ("I’m Colombia’s last grammarian!"),
yet make him long for death. "It’s whatever time you say," he
tells Alexis, recognizing Youth’s prerogative as Hell’s new fashion.


"They
love me in a hateful way," Alexis says of his previous johns, so Schroeder
films Alexis and Fernando’s first coupling as a mirror image of nearby
erotic sculpture. There’s no denying Schroeder has polished his poisoned
vision–from the motorcyclist-as-death motif (as in Cocteau’s Orpheus)
to Alexis’ noisy pastimes (tv, music and video games) indicting Western
culture. Our Lady is slick with cool, nihilistic details. Fernando hates
himself as much as he does the cruel, violent world. Even the boys he picks
up–after Alexis comes Wilmar (Juan David Restrepo)–are such casual
rogues that there’s no difference between their disaffected killing and
kissing. They take deprivation in stride–sexily–which goes to make
Our Lady Schroeder’s funniest, most adroit film since Barfly.
Yet Schroeder never catches the balance of shock and remorse achieved in Martin
Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead.


Our Lady
suggests Bringing Out the Dead by a nonbeliever. Fernando’s despairing
atheism keeps returning him to spiritual unease. A strung-out street boy provokes
him to cry, "That kid’s eyes! He looked at me from God’s infamy!"
Later, he confesses, "All these deaths prey on my mind." He regrets
that a seminary "has become a mall" full of homeless people and drug
addicts. And a church’s motto Domus Dei Porto Cielo (The House of
God, The Door of Heaven) evokes an apocalyptic nightmare of raining blood–an
effect ruined by this film being yet another blurry digital video transfer.
Fernando’s disgust and anxiety also recall David Thewlis as Johnny doing
his end-of-the-world rant in Mike Leigh’s Naked. But unless you’re
a trendy malcontent (the kind of person who also fell for Amores Perros)
Our Lady will, ultimately, seem whiny and morose.


Clipped


Heads up
for Bela Tarr’s
Werckmeister Harmonies at Anthology Film Archives
starting Oct. 10 (and a concurrent Tarr retrospective at MOMA). Yes, Tarr ranks
with the big boys. No contemporary filmmakers make better use of long takes
or slow, circling camera movements to prove the solidity of things, space, existence.
In bleak Eastern Europe, a town is aroused by a stuffed whale carnival attraction.
Tarr uses this premise as a tremendous metaphorical dare: man’s relation
to man (memorably shot by Gabor Medvigy and movingly scored by Mihaly Vig) rises
to contemplate nature, God and the universe. Because it evokes both Jonah and
Moby Dick, jokers will call it the Free Willy of art movies, but
when you see it, you’ll say that with respect.


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