Philip Kaufman’s Poor Quills Takes on Sade; Joaquin Phoenix in The Yards

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.



Writer Richard
Torres nailed Philip Kaufman, the director of Quills, as "the Zalman
King of art filmmakers." That was a few years back, referring to Kaufman’s
spuriously "adult" features The Unbearable Lightness of Being and
Henry & June
. In Quills, a travesty biography of the last years
the Marquis de Sade spent incarcerated at the Charenton insane asylum, Kaufman
still seems to be the same old panderer. Despite critical acclaim, Kaufman’s
late sex films (his Tumescent Trilogy) are hardly different from The Red
Shoe Diaries
and 9 1/2 Weeks, the blatantly softcore hits Zalman
King produced for an unpretentious market.


Dramatizing
the Marquis de Sade’s persecution (thus reversing Peter Weiss’ celebrated
play Marat/Sade) seems Kaufman’s deliberate attempt at self-justification
(prompted by Henry & June’s highly publicized initiation of
the NC-17 rating in 1990). Yet, in this post-sexual-revolution period, Kaufman’s
license hardly invites censure; it fits neatly into Hollywood’s old vaudevillian
tradition. Kaufman’s recent flicks (including 1993’s Rising Sun,
which featured an elaborate tabletop rape/ravishment scene) reduced the appeal
of movies to a certain facile eroticism–they’re burlesque films for
lazy intellectuals. Though Kaufman does not exactly present Sade the (monstrous)
revolutionary as in 1969’s X-rated American International film De Sade
that starred Keir Dullea, he takes a more exploitable view: Quills conveniently
posits Sade as a visionary forerunner of sexual progressives, another embattled
artist threatened by political conservatism. That’s a lunatic posture coming
from an essentially antic filmmaker, and Quills is neither raunchy nor
funny enough (like, say, Young Frankenstein) to make such presumption
anything but self-important.


Some journalists
have responded to Kaufman’s nonserious tack by seriously overpraising him
as an artist. This critical folly enshrines the essential capriciousness that
has long prevented American movies from being sincere about intimate aspects
of human experience; that has made them seem juvenile compared to non-American
movies about sex. In 1988 Unbearable failed comparison to Rajko Grlic’s
contemporaneous, topical In the Jaws of Life; while Henry &
June
is shamed by the generational sexual experiments examined in Bertolucci’s
fine, underrated Stealing Beauty.


Essaying "European"
themes like the 60s Czech Revolution in Unbearable and 30s louche Paris
in Henry & June (or just being banally exotic even when dealing with
"Orientalism" in Rising Sun), Kaufman at best makes modern
Hollywood kitsch. Though he’s only completed 10 films in nearly 40 years,
he is the foremost exemplar of the too-American tendency to take nothing seriously
besides his personal naivete. Kaufman’s "innocent" sexual indulgence
seems willfully imprudent. This would make him an ideal Sade biographer only
if he were prepared to go all the way–past Zalman King–to arousal-plus-outrage.
But Quills is tripped up by Kaufman’s sophomoric moralizing; though
brazen, he stays "safe"–and pious–portraying the Marquis
de Sade as a champion of free speech. Perhaps this is the hypocritical way a
Sade bio now gets green-lighted in Hollywood. Or maybe it’s an unfortunate
display of know-nothingness. Or worse–dishonesty.


Starting in
1794 as a horror movie set in postrevolutionary France, blood drips (just like
the gag in the opening credits of American Psycho) from a guillotine
into a soon-to-be-decapitated woman’s mouth. Kaufman mixes humor and sexual
humiliation–not with Sadean fervor or ingenuity but directionless, puerile
abandon, a balance he can’t sustain. That’s because he’s playing
Hollywood’s prestige-movie game, basically mixing Class (think Merchant-Ivory
having a bad taste nightmare) with Crass (the same inauthenticity as old Hollywood
period pieces where actors use British accents as if it gave distinction to
obviously fake sets and costumes). In Quills, the Britishisms of Australian
Geoffrey Rush as Sade, Michael Caine as his adversary Dr. Royer-Collard, Kate
Winslet as the laundress who smuggles Sade’s profane manuscripts to publishers,
and even Joaquin Phoenix as the Abbe de Coulmier, caretaker of the Charenton
asylum where Sade is housed, make no sense for 18th-century France. Yet Kaufman
would have viewers derive pleasure from this ruse–not literal-mindedly,
but kitschily, inconsistently and incoherently.


This is exactly
the nonsense some critics mistook Josef Von Sternberg, the cinema’s greatest
erotic artist, as doing. Kaufman–a jokester–ignores the spiritual
interest of Sternberg’s Blonde Venus, Shanghai Express, Morocco,
The Scarlet Empress
and Shanghai Gesture, but that doesn’t mean
that his hipster approach is at all perceptive about human sexual secrets. His
redemptive portrait of Sade contradicts hipster effrontery regarding sexual
freedom. It seeks martyrdom instead of liberty or debate. In Just Watch!,
a superb academic study of Blonde Venus, scholar Peter Baxter examined
how Sternberg detailed the agonies of personal expression through pop cultural
forms: "Sternberg’s broadly inclusive vision of self and identity
[was] at constant play with desire, and the narrow, conventional utterances
that the Hollywood institution condoned." By restraining any such serious
consideration of Sade’s madness or philosophy–and lacking Sternberg’s
voluptuous eye and thematic rigor–Kaufman winds up with a film full of
ersatz decadence. That’s why Torres’ aperçu was the wittiest,
most apt thing ever said about Kaufman’s erotic-artistic inadequacy. Kaufman’s
lost the ability to deflate his own pompous hard-on, which is what made The
Right Stuff
an admirable pop chronicle, and even his 1978 Invasion of
the Body Snatchers
a mostly nonsentimental but truly frightening sci-fi
update.


Quills
offers an untrustworthy mix of titillation and moralizing. Douglas Wright’s
script (from his own stage play) teases revolution but doesn’t threaten
it. What was disturbingly under the surface of Ken Russell’s Dionysian
bio-pic fantasies–that sexual excess might somehow go out of control and
into your lap–is confined to smarmy subplots about Coulmier’s temptation
and Royer-Collard’s cuckolding (a Dangerous Liaisons tribute). Even
the ugliest, Grand Guignol travesties of Quills (the various tortures
inflicted upon Sade!) are as contained and meretricious as the weird key-swapping
party in The Grinch. One of Wright’s many bad lines has villainous
Royer-Collard’s warn Sade, "You shall no longer spread your insidious
gospel." Gospel is the whoppingly wrong word, though it exposes the game
here that converts Sade’s perverse philosophy to valiant creativity. Wright
and Kaufman treat Sade’s writings as impish whimsies, but then misrepresent
the effects of pornography on mind, body and society by showing cliches of peasant
bawdiness–or end-of-the-world pandemonium. The sound effects go from Playboy
Channel heavy-breathing to carefully composed Hammer film crescendos of fake
screams–aural propaganda.


Wright has
Sade pronounce, "We eat, shit, fuck, kill, die. These are the eternal verities."
That sounds like farce (and would be if the director had the right stuff) yet
it seems Kaufman hasn’t read enough Camille Paglia to put Sade’s
profanities in proportion. When Sade, dressed in a dingy suit bearing words
scrawled in his own blood, dances atop a banquet table to rouse the asylum’s
inmates, it recalls the strained anarchy of Treat Williams in Milos Forman’s
Hair; the image has a smug capriciousness. What it doesn’t have
is the audacity and integrity of the logorrheic imagery in Peter Greenaway’s
more credibly Sadean The Pillow Book. Where Greenaway, Ken Russell or
Roman Polanski might be insinuating or provocative, Kaufman is obvious, smutty.
Superficially turned on by Sade’s question, "Who doesn’t dream
of indulging every spasm of lust?" Kaufman is disingenuous about Sade’s
misanthropy and savagery while venting nothing more than Beverly Hills or Marin
County libertinage–self-importance he infers from Sade’s writings.
(Quills might have been directed by the curious-yet-squeamish Tom Cruise
character in Eyes Wide Shut.)


For porn-savvy
audiences, Quills will seem the last gasp of 60s liberalism–a 90s
libertarian debauch. Kaufman wants to refute Royer-Collard’s statement,
"Idealism is youth’s final luxury, but this film represents the final
luxury of unengaged American filmmaking. (I hope.) Compare Quills to
the sexual/social challenge of Mystikal’s "Shake Ya Ass," Sisqo’s
"The Thong Song" or even TLC’s "No Scrubs" and you
see how Kaufman sits out America’s current moral dilemmas. He hides behind
sexual kitsch, casting the very modern Joaquin Phoenix for what Gus Van Sant
first saw in him–a tendency for debauchery. Kaufman exploits Phoenix’s
carnal ambiguity–the dark, cloudy eyes and that odd, expressive backbone
matching his harelip–as the embodiment of sexual inhibition. It’s
uncertain if Phoenix’s Abbe is meant to be gay or what (he lusts for Sade
and the laundress), but Kaufman’s little lesson in repression turns
him into a necrophilic Renfield. Ingmar Bergman’s young curate in Smiles
of a Summer Night
didn’t require a phony transgressive dream sequence
but Kaufman, through Sade, panders to Hollywood convention in the most trite
manner. Before the Abbe’s corpse-sex, Kaufman tempts us with a shot
showing Winslet half-nude in the background while Phoenix sits foreground open-shirted,
a lock of hair falling in his face. It’s an unlikely proximity for these
two characters yet as cannily suggestive as old paperback cover art.


Clearly Kaufman
has confused Sade’s pornographic indignities with Henry Miller–that’s
like confusing Anais Nin with Madonna (what’s next on Kaufman’s menu,
Justify My Love, The Miniseries?). This simplification, ignoring the
essence of Sade’s blasphemous Philosophy in the Bedroom, stands
as a classic instance of Hollywood prevarication–a preference for licentious
sentimentality. Anyone impressed by Kaufman’s LaButean bad idea (falling
for Wright/Sade’s alibi, "I didn’t create this world, I only
record it") should see how Leos Carax dealt with the same creative dilemma
more richly in Pola X. But then that’s precisely the kind of serious
European art Quills’ kitsch seeks to displace. Pursuing what a critic
once called "the distilled essence of dirty thoughts," Kaufman fails
an authentic probe of history or eroticism.


 


The
Yards
directed
by James Gray



As Willie Gutierrez
in The Yards, Joaquin Phoenix becomes the frontrunner for this year’s
supporting actor prizes. Willie has a genuine modern crisis trying to survive
and assimilate in a mean world. He joins the criminal substrata of the MTA,
partaking of New York’s casual ethnic corruption. The Irish and Italian
pact with municipal privilege that blacks and Latinos envy is the brass ring
that Willie thoughtlessly grasps. And to prove it, he falls in love with a daughter
of low-privilege, Erica Stoltz (Charlize Theron), a proletarian youth as dark-browed
and beautifully damned as himself.


Two problems
with all this: first, Phoenix doesn’t code Latino and so he and director
James Gray completely miss the ethnic paradox of passing (not mentioned on the
screen since Hangin’ with the Homeboys). Phoenix’s charisma
steals the movie from lead actor Mark Wahlberg, but when he doesn’t make
Willie’s suffering primal, The Yards cannot distinguish its mundane
view of New York corruption. (Though not as crazy as Andy Garcia playing an
Irish cop in Night Falls on Manhattan, it’s slightly, definitely
off–like Jeffrey Wright’s spectacularly mistaken Dominican bad guy
in Shaft.)


Second problem:
instead of a fresh understanding–an exposé–of bureaucratic
racism, Gray and his cinematographer, the talented Harris Savides, fall back
on imitating the dark planes and overhead illumination of Gordon Willis’
work in The Godfather. As soon as The Godfather is evoked, The
Yards
is diminished. It becomes a series of stylized visual and dramatic
cliches. Even good actors like Phoenix, Theron, Ellen Burstyn, Faye Dunaway,
James Caan, a credible Mark Wahlberg–and a surprising Steve Lawrence–wind
up doing Corleone postures. And in the final, grief-ridden tableau, Gray doesn’t
sustain the graceful movements as Coppola did, but cuts and mars the composition’s
emotional integrity. Few critics have noticed Gray and Savides’ audacious
ripoff; instead, they recall On the Waterfront, a less active (plot-based)
influence. It’s Godfather mania (postmodern kitsch) that keeps Gray
and Savides from going deeper into the urban corruption that The Yards
depicts, the sorrow Joaquin Phoenix is primed to display. They went for color-
and skin-coordinated melodrama. As a result, this well-meaning drama became
an ersatz tragedy.


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