Pfeiffer and Ford in What Lies Beneath


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What Lies Beneath Directed by Robert Zemeckis
What Lies Beneath tries damn hard to be this summer's "I see dead people" movie, but alas, most of the deathly stares it conjures up will be in the audience. Ponderous, overlong and filled to the brim with preposterous contrivances, it's the last thing fans of the haunted-house genre need?a ghost story that doesn't know if it believes in ghosts.

Which is to say that it's a particular kind of horror-suspense movie: the femme-centric kind. Lots of water and mist and steam. Lots of phallic knives and door keys. Lots of intimations of drowning and infidelity and insanity. Lots of concern for hair dryers, jewelry and real estate. Director Robert Zemeckis and his cohorts toss in beaucoup Hitchcock references (or maybe these are simple rips), touching everything from Rear Window and Vertigo to Psycho, but the basic prototype here of course is Rebecca, with its fine old house, too-good-to-be-true hubby and rattled heroine.


Pfeiffer is Claire, the "beautiful wife" (quoting the very original presskit) of Dr. Norman Spencer (Ford). The two live in a beautiful lakeside house in Vermont that they inherited from his father and have almost finished remodeling. When the story opens they're taking their daughter?actually hers from a previous marriage?off to college. Claire is way distraught about this parting, and when she returns to the big, old, almost-remodeled house and starts hearing things, it seems we're in for a tale of empty-nest syndrome gone haywire: a weird and unpromising premise, but hey, you never know.


If the filmmakers deserve credit for anything, it's for making the Spencers' home an elaborate mausoleum of hushed vacancy and elegantly mute menace. I don't think I've seen an American movie so insinuatingly quiet in ages. This is one of the things movies can do superbly. Nobody in a real house like this one would be spooked by spells of nothing happening, but we're so used to movie images being filled with people and activity that merely allowing the camera to linger on an empty, silent pearl-gray room with reflected lake light dappling the ceiling?well, handled correctly, this can be creepier than a convention of ghouls.


Zemeckis, in other words, knows how to build up to frightening moments. But he deploys these moves far too often, so often that any viewer will see them coming and quickly resent their manipulative obviousness and frequency. What's really bothersome about them, though, is that most are patently motivated by the desire to make the audience jump rather than by necessities of the plot, which grows more cumbersome, slapdash and annoying as the film rolls on.


Ultimately, What Lies Beneath isn't the kind of bad that leaves you seething. It's the kind that makes you wonder, "What were they thinking? Or smoking? Did anyone bother to read this script?" It's an old cliche of Hollywood but evidently still true in the age of DreamWorks, which produced this film: The screenwriter is the lowest man on moviedom's totem pole, and much abused, yet nothing works if his contribution isn't rock solid?especially in a genre like this. Stars like Pfeiffer, though, wield lots of power, and a movie like What Lies Beneath can go into production with everyone at the studio operating in a state of denial, thinking, "Well, the script's good enough. It's got lots of juice and moments. Zemeckis'll make it cohere, and Michelle and Harrison will add the sizzle."


There should be someone at every studio who's paid a handsome salary simply to scream bullshit! whenever logic like that creeps into executive meetings. What Lies Beneath will wilt at the box office for a simple reason: Clark Gregg's screenplay is lame, amateurish hackwork. Its premise may be passable, but the way it's elaborated is almost stunningly inept.


In the simplest terms, it lacks two things that are indispensable in this genre. First is a coherent dramatic logic that lets one event lead to the next in a way that feels plausible, connected and thematically cogent. What Lies Beneath starts out, as noted, seemingly about Claire's feeling for her daughter. But after about 15 minutes, this thread's dropped, never to reappear. Then Claire becomes obsessed with the idea that a new neighbor has murdered his wife. Again, the idea's pursued for a while then tossed aside. After the film switches tracks like this a few times, you quickly stop caring about Claire and the film, for a simple reason: When anything can happen, nothing matters. (Screenwriter Gregg, it appears, is primarily an actor. That may help explain why his script plays like a collection of punchy moments minus a bedrock of logic.)


As for where the story eventually leads, I want to get into that, and thus should warn prospective viewers: if you don't want any of the movie's revelations spoiled, stop reading here and go waste your money. Yet what I'm about to relate isn't exactly classified information. The movie's press notes put it right up front in explaining the tale's premise: "It has been a year since Dr. Norman Spencer betrayed his beautiful wife Claire. But with Claire oblivious to the truth and the affair over, Norman's life and marriage seem perfect?so perfect that when Claire tells him of seeing a young woman's wraithlike image in their home, he dismisses her mounting terror as delusion."


There you go. Although the movie doesn't release the news until its second hour, its story hinges on marital betrayal. Norman isn't the swell hubby that half the film leads us to believe he is. A year before, he had a fling with a college girl who subsequently disappeared. Did she kill herself by drowning in the Spencers' lake? There must be some reason for all this water imagery, and for the image of a young blonde with wet hair that Claire keeps seeing.


We'll stop here with the revelations, although they eventually touch on the second essential quality the film lacks: what might be called either a metaphysic or a psychology. The Sixth Sense had both in spades. It takes place in an imaginative universe where the afterlife definitely exists (audiences no doubt find this spiritually reassuring, but it's perhaps even more deeply appealing as a mirror image of cinema's own ghostly cosmos), and the story's about something: a man's desire not to leave his wife. By contrast, What Lies Beneath keeps dithering around about whether we're seeing ghosts or figments of someone's imagination, which is to say that it never establishes the metaphysical ground rules that let the viewer know what's possible and not in its fictional realm.


Expressed as psychology, this vagueness reads as self-delusion. It's as if the screenwriter isn't smart enough to analyze his own work. The movie imagines it's about a woman who finally discovers that her husband will go to murderous lengths to cover up the evidence that he's had an affair with a college student. But what's it really about? Sure: Claire's terror that her husband has bonked her own daughter, in their house. The daughter and Norman's lover are both blonde coeds who, albeit in different ways, mysteriously disappear: this is the kind of "coincidence" and mirroring that psychologists love. It's also the kind that a movie as dim and poorly wrought as What Lies Beneath can't even begin to process.


Benjamin Smoke Directed by Jem Cohen & Peter Sillen
Jem Cohen makes films (including Lost Book Found, This Is a History of New York, Instrument and others) that are typed as "experimental" and therefore generally not seen outside of specialized venues. Labels aside, Cohen's easily one of America's most original and fascinating filmmakers. In Benjamin Smoke, he has teamed up with documentarian Peter Sillen (Speed Racer: Welcome to the World of Vic Chestnutt) for a portrait of an Atlanta artist and eccentric who died last year of AIDS.

Adjectives and labels are as hopeless when applied to this film's subject as they are regarding Cohen's work in general. The character we see as Benjamin was born as Robert Dickerson and, by his own account, started crossdressing as a kid. He grew up dirt poor. In the late 70s, electrified by Patti Smith's music, he briefly moved to New York and worked sweeping up at CBGB. After returning to Atlanta, he started singing (often in drag) in bands that included Freedom Puff and the fabulous Opal Foxx Quartet. During this time, the 1980s, Atlanta's hyperactive drag scene sent luminaries like RuPaul and Lady Bunny to New York and transregional celebrity.


This mix of drag, punk, cornpone, methedrine and literary consciousness is a peculiar Southern (and indeed specifically Georgian) cocktail. One might suggest that if Flannery O'Connor had been reborn a gay speedfreak?and wouldn't that be just like her??Benjamin would have been the result. Cohen began filming him in the late 80s and continued until shortly before his death. Parts of the film visit the rail-thin raconteur at his ramshackle home in Cabbage Town, a hick cul-de-sac that during the 90s goes from derelict mill town to up-and-coming, newly renovated yuppie suburb.


Cohen and Sillen's approach, which takes in Benjamin's environs and lets him speak for himself, gives us a rebel soul who never ceases making an art of his life. One of the points the film puts across so strikingly?a needed reminder at a time when celebrity culture seems dangerously close to devouring all other varieties?is that there are great bands and artists in the hinterlands who never come close to a major-label deal or a magazine cover.


In fact, as colorful and affecting as Benjamin is, with his wry, self-mocking wit and croaking, Tom Waitsish voice, what remains with you is the haunting beauty of his songs. He's seen playing with his final band, Smoke, and he comments on how strange it is that five very dissimilar guys who don't know each other very well can come together and create something that transcends them all. Indeed, my only criticism of Benjamin Smoke, a vividly poetic documentary about a singular spirit, is the wish that it allowed Smoke's songs to play all the way through; I could listen to this strange, mournful, uncategorizable music all day long.


Reeling
In his column of July 24, The New Republic's Stanley Kauffmann?who's often far ahead of the mainstream and critics 40 years his junior?throws a well-deserved spotlight on a new book titled Oliver Stone's USA: Film, History and Politics (University Press of Kansas, 360 pages, $34.95), edited by Robert Brent Toplin. Considering that, as I mentioned here last week in another context, Stone has been repeatedly slimed by historians whose op-ed soundbites usually reflect nothing but ignorance of movies and art, it's nice to have an occasion not only for more detailed analyses, arguments and reflections (the articles, for example, include essays about Nixon by Stephen E. Ambrose, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and George McGovern) but also for Stone's counterblasts and justifications. The latter are as thought-provoking as the films themselves. Overall, the rectification this book provides certainly supports Kauffmann's conclusion: "We've had so much talk by historians about the way filmmakers treat history that it may be time for a conference of film critics to discuss the way historians treat film."

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