To Hide directed
by Lee Myung-Se
De Palma’s critical drubbing over Mission to Mars–reminiscent
of the scene in Airplane! where passengers line up to smack an old lady–is
the clearest evidence of the catastrophe that has befallen contemporary film
criticism. Mission to Mars is a litmus test. It can be said with certainty
that any reviewer who pans it does not understand movies, let alone like them.
They’d be better off reviewing static, juvenile media like television or
comic books. This is relevant to the splashiest entry in this year’s New
Directors/New Films series, Nowhere to Hide by Korean filmmaker Lee Myung-Se
(it premieres at the Museum of Modern Art, March 27-28).
Sequences of visual flair
and startling directorial assurance follow one another, turning the Korean underworld
into highly stylized mock-realist locales, yet there’s no connection between
style and morality, art and politics. Detective Woo (a satirical salute to the
ruthless estheticism of John Woo) relishes chasing and beating criminals but
his crazed efficiency is just a ploy for Lee to wax tough. Woo’s father
advised, "You’ll end up a gangster with all that strutting around,
better become a cop." And Park plays Woo as a Takeshi parody, always with
an open-mouthed grin/grimace. But we’re way beyond the passionate psychosis
of Robert Ryan’s rogue cop in Nick Ray’s On Dangerous Ground
(who was memorably labeled "a gangster with a badge"). Lee pays homage
to film noir without advancing understanding of its political and spiritual
dynamics. Brutal cops are only funny or exciting if one hangs onto old genre
Nowhere to Hide’s
mindless estheticism fails to the degree it tries getting away with the cop/crime
genre that we now understand to be allied with social hegemony, celebrating
police/state power. Lee isn’t much concerned with that; he’s too distracted
and fascinated by Western influence (not just Tarantino but the obscenity of
Larry King Live broadcast on Korean tv). His first bravura sequence is
scored to the Bee Gees’ "Holiday," evoking the prime 60s moment
when pop exploded globally–more poignant than today, when the postmodern
mix of genres and media is conformed to without reflection. That explains the
delectation Lee takes in police misconduct ("Nobody knows we’re here.
It’s not in the newspapers, we came in real quiet"); he fancies a
cliche, oversimplified cops-and-robbers world that ignores politics. It also
explains how, disengaged from the Diallo-Louima realities we face, he can go
so deliriously far into high style, insisting on apolitical, amoral enjoyment.
Lee makes mindlessness tempting.
He stages Woo’s nighttime fight with a stocky crook named Fishhead in a
decorous slum yard among burgundy and teal banners waving like flags attached
to a red clothesline. Crowning touch: a new moon hanging screen right illuminates
the skirmish. This fight–a ballet–then escalates into a shadowboxing
etude. Even tight, interior spaces sprout visual jokes: a Marx Brothers crowd
of cops scrambling for a surprise attack, or a kitchenette tussle amidst smoke
and bubbles. I haven’t seen such capricious visual elegance since Jean-Jacques
Beineix showed up with the trendsetting Diva in 1981. But Beineix blended
style into fantasy; Lee keeps bumping into realism–an affectation modern
audiences enjoy, but it makes for a dishonest abstraction. Even when Lee pulls
off a two-man foot chase, extending stress and propulsion as magisterially as
the attack on the stagecoach in John Ford’s Stagecoach, it winds
up excitation for its own sake. Exhilarating but cheap.
directed by James
Sadly, I realize
there is consensus for this type of flippancy. Conversely, the consensus blindness
regarding Mission to Mars indicates a cultural crisis. The new teen thriller
Final Destination gets flip about death, as Mission to Mars does
not. Director James Wong uses the new shock f/x of Super Real Catastrophe seen
in the car accidents of Meet Joe Black and Erin Brockovich to
jolt rather than insinuate fear or reveal squeamishness. The plot of a psychic
teen Alex (Devon Sawa) trying to outwit fate becomes a series of Rube Goldberg
death rallies, staged bluntly, not cleverly. When Alex’s classmate (Ali
Larter) recalls her father’s death, it’s a bland recitation without
being strange or evocative like Phoebe Cates’ in Gremlins. And though
minor characters all have the names of movies figures associated with horror
films–Lewton, Browning, Wiene, Schreck, Hitchcock, Chaney, Murnau, Dreyer–it’s
fake sophistication, disgracing a grave, poetic tradition.
Same thing happens when
critics chide Mission to Mars for not being like Star Wars or
2001. Their fake erudition keeps them from appreciating De Palma’s
poetic treatise on life, death and rebirth. "Amused contempt," is
the way Salon magazine praised the critical attack on Mission to Mars.
It’s a point of view that disdains emotionalism and beauty in cinema, aloof
from art but reveling in smug superiority to any humane feeling that a filmmaker
might express. Critics lining up to bitch-slap De Palma is the real bonfire
of the vanities–a culmination of the pulp-trash culture that began by catering
to adolescent cynicism, young adult hipsterism. Behind this is the dullest literal-mindedness.
The issues-vs.-artistry complaint that Andrew Sarris outlined more than 30 years
ago still threatens to keep movies a low medium, denying their esthetic (visual,
kinetic, emotional) essence.
No current movie displays
cinematic essence better than Mission to Mars, yet because De Palma has
outgrown his old cynicism, critics blast it. (Slate’s reviewer,
longing for De Palma’s earlier features, reduced De Palma’s talent
to target practice.) Critics ignore how De Palma’s art grew into a more
humanistic vision. Reviewing the 1981 Blow Out, Pauline Kael wrote, "I
think De Palma has sprung to the place that Altman achieved with films such
as McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville and that Coppola reached
with the two Godfather movies–that is, to the place where genre
is transcended and what we’re moved by is an artist’s vision."
Besides being one of the rare moments when Kael and Sarris complement each other’s
appreciation of film as art, that observation has held true for most of the
movies De Palma has done since–including Mission to Mars.
It’s a simple matter
of appreciating what film is as an art form–and how De Palma exemplifies
it even when practicing unexpected genres. Mission’s three great
sequences–the backyard barbecue, inside the space craft and outside on
Mars’ surface–sustain De Palma’s longtime interest in the existential
moment (what a non-film-critic friend calls "the terror of free will").
Looking at movies just the way Hollywood prescribes, critics only see the Luke
and Woody characters as George Lucas and Disney company references; misinterpreting
generic elements as repetition, not the postmodern comments they always are
in De Palma. Today’s critics have lost Sarris’ and Kael’s ability
to perceive beauty and meaning in film–their literal-mindedness only appreciates
"important" subject matter and spoon-fed morals. Even Salon’s
headline "Film Critics Hoot at Brian De Palma’s $100 Million Space
Epic" puts the emphasis on budget rather than style or content. Monetary
value has become critics’ major concern–Mission to Mars’
budget, not its content. All this feeds into an attitude of "amused contempt";
such criticism plays into the designs of the film industry rather than esthetics.
It misguides audiences into only accepting Hollywood formula–expecting
every movie to be like every other; accepting conventionality, not risk-taking
or personal expression. (And Mission is not De Palma’s first sci-fi
movie; that would be the equally astounding The Fury.)
Licking his wounds, De Palma
should remember even the deified Kubrick’s space trip was ridiculed. Here’s
Renata Adler on 2001 in the Times: "A film in which infinite
care, intelligence, patience, imagination and Cinerama have been devoted to
what looks like the apotheosis of the fantasy of a precocious early nineteen
fifties city boy… An entire hour goes by before the plot even begins to declare
itself… The whole sensibility is intellectual fifties’ child: chess games,
bodybuilding exercises, beds on the space craft that look like camp bunks…in
their space uniforms the voyagers look like Jiminy Crickets… When the final
slab, a combination Prime Mover slab and coffin lid, closes in it begins to
resemble a fifties candy bar… [T]he movie is so completely absorbed in its
own problems, its use of color and space, its fanatical devotion to science
fiction detail, that it is somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring…
Kubrick seems as occupied with the best use of the outer edge of the screen
as any painter, and he is particularly fond of simultaneous rotations, revolving,
and straightforward motions–the visual equivalent of rubbing the stomach
and patting the head… And yet the uncompromising slowness of the movie makes
it hard to sit through without talking."
It’s obviously film
critics who think like a "fifties child." They persist in devaluing
film art, praising it when juvenile, scoffing when it’s serious and visionary.
by Andrzej Bartkowiak
time DMX appears on screen in Romeo Must Die, his fans in the audience
cheer and squeal–and he’s only got a bit part. But what a huge miscalculation
by the filmmakers when they kill him off. Fans weren’t having it. Groans
and boos drowned out the next two minutes of dialogue. The Romeo & Juliet
love story between black gangster princess Aaliyah and Chinese gang prince Jet
Li was quickly ignored; the crabs-in-a-barrel power struggle between boss Delroy
Lindo and henchman Isaiah Washington meant nothing. Playing a club owner named
Silk who hauls out his artillery, barking threats when gang war interrupts his
dancefloor, DMX confirms his appeal for the generation that just missed
Tupac. His pit bull sexuality is the only formula the movie has going for it.
Then DMX gets snuffed like a punk and Romeo Must Die dies.
Just for the chance to be
in movies, hiphop artists are selling out fans’ expectations. Their personal
sense of career advancement is certified by big-screen glamorization even when
shunted to minor parts or used as cannon fodder. Aaliyah’s success with
the video for her hit single "You Must Be the One" is weakly translated
into Juliet posturing. She displays trim flygirl abs, but is never allowed to
prove that she might even be capable of acting out a relationship with Jet Li
(imported simply to capitalize on hiphop’s cross-cultural Hong Kong movie
fascination). This plot potentially had more appeal and insight than Jim Jarmusch’s
toying with pop phenomena in Ghost Dog. Aaliyah and Li could have made
Romeo Must Die’s love story reveal the romanticism and erotic allure
of black-Asian-white cultural attraction. The closest the film comes to disclosing
its venality is retreading blaxploitation’s get-whitey pretense by suggesting
white real estate bandits–Roth Equities–have fomented the black-Chinese
tensions. Yet even this is simply another example of producer Joel Silver’s
schlock audacity–"Everything’s kosher" a crook says when
a deal goes smoothly. Altogether a bizarre decoction of American ethnic anxiety.
"What’s the matter
with you man, you crazy?" a black businessman cries when Washington brutalizes
him. "I can live with that," is Washington’s thuggish reply.
Romeo Must Die targets a new generation for superficial flattery through
calculated sex and violence. The photography even has the same sallow tones
as 70s blaxploitation. Former cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak makes his calling-card
directorial debut with this programmer yet Li’s action scenes are not clearly
framed and edited. Romeo Must Die’s only noteworthy touch is depressing.
When Li destroys an opponent with particular viciousness, Bartkowiak’s
special effects team treats us to an x-ray shot of phosphorescent bones snapping
within silhouettes of the victim’s body parts–the coup de grace shows
a spinal column rippling apart in chain-reaction. The corruption of audience
empathy is an object lesson for those critics confused by David O. Russell’s
appropriation of pop style in Three Kings; they missed the principle
behind Russell’s bullet-wound interior sequences. It was an effect that
critiqued the action genre rather than hyping it up. It’s a distinction
between esthetic boldness and anesthetizing blatancy. Romeo Must Die
is for viewers who can’t tell the difference.
School. Learn how De Palma takes film savvy tropes and uses them to his own
purpose at Film Forum’s March 27 showing of Blow Out. Yes, Rear
Window, The Conversation and Blow Up are referenced, but in
one of his greatest films, De Palma revives a Chabrol routine from Les Cousins
(the 360-degree spinning camera) to convey John Travolta’s panic. As a
film technician who has witnessed a political murder, his world caves in and
security spins off into the void. Magnificent.