Supernova; A Brighter Summer Day

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

misfortune–and his unbowed talent–would be the talk of the cultural
moment if bad luck and betrayal did not routinely hound serious artists in commercial
enterprises like filmmaking and book publishing; or if Hill’s films were
better understood by contemporary cineastes. Despite the hip cachet given to
action genres there’s been little appreciation for how Hill’s past
work like The Driver, The Warriors, The Long Riders,
Southern Comfort
and Johnny Handsome renewed the form. Critics favor
less skilled practitioners Quentin Tarantino, John Dahl, Michael Mann and that
totally mindless adept James Cameron. Those piddling careers are firmly established.
So it was astonishing last year to see Hill’s Streets of Fire referenced
in Emir Kusturica’s boisterous Black Cat White Cat; it contains
a scene where one of the clownish gypsy characters compulsively watches Streets
of Fire
on tv. Although Streets of Fire (a fantasy about rock ’n’
roll mythology intersecting movie mythology) was too compacted with sophisticated
cultural allusions to be a hit on home turf, the fact that it got through to
the Balkans is testimony to the fecundity of Hill’s imagination and his
irresistible cinematic panache. Critics who fall over themselves praising Kusturica’s
boondoggles (he may have imitated Streets effervescence
too slavishly) can’t countenance Hill’s pyrotechnics or his pop poetry.

Their indifference
has made obscure what in Hill’s movies ought to have popular currency.
His interest in how character develops in imaginary, socially fraught situations
displays a more intelligent fascination with art history and cinematic archetypes
than any of the genre-saturated experiments by Martin Scorsese or Coppola or
Cameron. In The Driver (showing as part of Film Forum’s "Neo-Noir"
series on March 6), Hill first achieved his unique combination of myth and personal
identity–a chimera of existential crisis as svelte as The Third Man.
His visionary films are bound for rediscovery and this damaged Supernova
should be one of the most interesting.

It’s almost
frightening to think about the masterpiece Walter Hill had in mind (after he
was removed from the project Hill gave directorial credit to the pseudonym Thomas
Lee) but what remains in Supernova has virtues reminiscent of movies
Hill claims. Set in the 22nd century, Supernova begins as A.J. Marley
(Forster), captain of the Nightingale 229, works on his dissertation
about violent 20th-century cartoons. The first sight of his face framed within
the ship’s window is an elegant effect that blends Forster’s stern,
rapt features with a tv monitor’s reflected animated antics. It prefigures
a weird, unsettling transformation, a key to the film’s narrative pattern.
Each character is defined by private responses to changed conditions. Chief
medic Kaela Evers (Bassett) hides wounds from a past love affair with her officious
demeanor; copilot Nick Vanzant (Spader) is on probation for illegal drug use;
computer engineer Benj Sotomejor (Wilson Cruz) is a techie in sexual retreat
while the medical assistants Danika Lund (Robin Tunney) and Yerzy Penalosa (Lou
Diamond Phillips) wile-a-way their downtime coupling. The team’s interplanetary
stasis is disrupted by a sudden distress signal; the plot jumps as the Nightingale
responds, speeding toward a "rogue moon."

Almost as if
remaking the Alien series (which Hill produced), Supernova uses
sci-fi cliche and B-movie plotting as poetic devices. In a great Hollywood tradition,
Hill transforms genre; he keeps the juvenile sense of adventure but (despite
some space jargon) jettisons juvenile fear of the unknown. As every good genre
film is an exercise in moral dilemmas, the Nightingale crew confronts
Christian predicament ("They crucified Christ so let’s go").
Instincts alerted, their beliefs and their sexuality reveal the potency of desire.
Hill, like Graham Greene, is less concerned with narrative convention than in
discovering the characters’ compulsions and equating them with other cultural

Probing the
unconscious, Hill comes up with secrets The Talented Mr. Ripley withholds
about what drives contemporary ambition. Hill starts with disreputable pop (not
tony jazz), disputatious racial commingling (not white exclusivity) and working-class
tensions (not ritzy privilege), and accepts queerness. Nick Vanzant’s struggle
with his drug problem tests his personal honor and career rep. Spader, buff
and dark-haired, perfectly conveys modern, self-conscious desuetude–a more
credible characterization than Matt Damon’s Boy Scout psychopath. Hill
goes to outer space to show the intricacies of inner space. The Nightingale
itself resembles warm emotional cavities, and the trek into the unknown is automatically
significant, but Supernova adds other temptations. It depicts the modern
urge toward danger that comes from boredom, social anxiety. The plot (alarmingly
similar to Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn Gregory Solman noted) sets the
stage for examining contemporary drug culture–when people opt out not for
adventure, but as deliberate social alternatives. Rejecting conventional duty
as a justifiable response to social ineffectualness–settling for private
solutions by subjective means.

Action hero
Vanzant seems designed to refute solipsism. His attraction to Kaela, a socializing
force, recalls the long line of invigorating cross-ethnic, cross-class Hill
liaisons (the Nightingale crew is a multiculti love-in). But these are
also issues that the supposedly more realistic Talented Mr. Ripley fails
to address. This film maudit, with just the bare bones of a psychological
epic, still resonates ideas about our social relations. Instead of a Star
menagerie Hill uses actors with a B-movie genius’ gift for human
types. Raspy-voiced Vanzant, the guarded stoic male, complements Kaela. None
of Hill’s previous tough-guy females were as gorgeous as Bassett; barking
orders and controlling her own feelings, she does sharp and sexy with aplomb.
Kaela and Vanzant enliven cliched cohabitation tension by signifying larger
social meanings in line with the Nightingale 229’s humanitarian
mission. Their space rescue reveals what lengths people will go to to be needed.

Perhaps you
need to know the imprisoned drug dealer’s speech from Red Heat,
recall the warring factions of Trespass or just remember the purpose
of art to recognize the political dynamics of Supernova’s conflicts–greed,
dependency, love. Although it seems Hill contrived to resolve the hackneyed
plot (by William Malone and Daniel Chuba) into a valentine of personal utopia,
his artistry added an unexpected dimension. The distress signal the Nightingale
answers came from Karl Larson, Kaela’s former lover–an intergalactic
thief and romantic cad whose appearance on board prompts the horny, naive Danika
to ask, "That’s your worst nightmare?" First calling himself
Karl’s son Troy, Larson (Peter Facinelli) hides his menaces behind a revitalized
face and body. He has pirated an orb that turns out to be a bomb, dangerous
to the Earth’s existence (or to anyone who touches it). Obsessed with the
orb’s value and power, Larson infects various crew members, appealing to
their weaknesses, luring them to his own venality, their own deaths.

Larson is a
great figment–the damnedest romantic fantasy of a past lover (now dreaded)
coming back into your life as young and ripe as when you were first seduced.
The New York Times never saw fit to even mention the character in its
dismissive review, but Facinelli’s star turn can’t be ignored. His
kindly eyes and budding mouth are framed by a bearded scruff; he moves athletically
with alarming, powerful arms. Trickster Larson has extra-cinematic wiliness
because of Facinelli’s slight resemblance to Tom Cruise (but a Cruise who
can act); he might have exploded the sexual pretenses of The Talented Mr.
. Watching him expand upon several of Supernova’s other
androgynous ideas (the disembodied voice of Sweetie, a HAL-like computer and
an antique, C-3PO-type robot refurbished to resemble a World War I hero) to
demonstrate how misbegotten mankind’s future romantic expectations might
be. Like those almost human machines, Larson’s a cruel, tantalizing jest.

With Facinelli
Hill transcends comic book wariness; they put Supernova on that same
high level of erotic allegory as Brian De Palma’s echt cinematic
The Fury. (You could think of Spader and Bassett as Adam and Eve of the
future, and Facinelli the snake in the intergalactic garden.) Even Lou Diamond
Phillips’ Penalosa succumbs to Larson’s temptation in a halting scene
of drug-like stupor. And a classic moment of romantic abuse has Larson rebuff
Danika then eject her from the spacecraft. Tunney’s face shows the lovelorn’s
shocked bewilderment. Looking guilt-ridden and betrayed, she’s just coming
to grips with one of life’s harshest lessons. Whooshed out of the Nightingale’s
hull, her unprotected body drifts rapidly into the void–helpless, unmoored,
soaring into oblivion. In a single image, it’s what heartache feels like.

While critics
enthuse (once again) over another reissue of Rear Window, they’ve
missed the real movie news: which is Supernova’s fresh vision of
the secrets in human hearts. Supernova doesn’t arrive with the fanfare
that usually declares a studio’s pride (and some reviewers, ignoring what’s
onscreen, take glee in evidence of impending noncommerciality). But if you care
about moviemaking or the particular nuanced thrill of emotional expression that
Hill achieves through genre efficiency (i.e., poetry) then Supernova
is the movie to see right now.


Look Sharp. Nothing
against Rear Window, but who hasn’t seen it already? It’s exasperating
when every rereleased old movie gets touted as "new and improved."
Supernova builds on ideas about love and loneliness that Hitchcock glosses
in Rear Window yet reviewers are simply selling Hitchcock’s product,
not his meanings. In Cambridge University Press’ new Alfred Hitchcock’s
Rear Window
, edited by John Belton, my contribution "Eternal
Vigilance" offers a different interpretation of the "important political
meaning that lies beneath the surface…and that becomes more clearly visible
in the subsequent generation of filmmakers Hitchcock inspired." The essay
traces Rear Window’s influence on Antonioni’s Blow Up,
De Palma’s Sisters and Coppola’s The Conversation and
other recent landmarks of social detection. Read the book then see the movie.