Pfeiffer and Ford in What Lies Beneath

Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

What Lies
by Robert Zemeckis
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
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
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

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
can’t even begin to process.

by Jem Cohen & Peter Sillen

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

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.

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."