After 45 or so minutes, I walked out on Jim McKay’s Everyday People, the first film at this year’s festival to stretch the limits of my endurance. The movie opens on a captivating note that sours rapidly. A young black man stands in the center of a nearly empty subway station singing opera. Only seconds in, McKay fades Muzak over the singer. The director isn’t aware of or doesn’t trust the strength of the image, and so it’s off to the last days of a ghetto diner that’s been sold to make way for condos and upscale trash. McKay drowns his anti-gentrification screed in wildly inauthentic, self-consciously plain dialogue, which rings dead hollow, and he’s misdirected the actors to envelop each line with a studied cadence, as if to underscore the deliberate, condescending fakery. Some examples: “If you’re waiting for a level playing field, you’re going to be on the sidewalk a long time, my friend,” or “I’m tryin’ to do the right thing here, and I got it comin’ at me from all sides.” McKay plummets to rock bottom when a mother who has worked her way up a corporate ladder sasses her poetry-slam aspirant daughter: “Let me tell you somethin’, Homeslice, you’re nothin’ but a bourgeois niggah from Montclair, New Jersey!”
White liberal McKay hasn’t a clue how African-Americans talk. It’s worth noting that McKay’s friend Michael Stipe bankrolls the director’s production company. McKay’s script smacks of the same reverse elitism that once prompted REM to co-opt “automatic for the people,” a slogan for a soul food restaurant in Athens, GA, as an album title. It never occurs to Stipe and McKay that the working class poor whom they patronize don’t go around speaking in clichés all the time. Perhaps for McKay’s next film (because, alas, he’s going to go on making them) he should adapt Douglas Martin’s exercise in creative non-fiction, Outline of My Lover—a topic of which McKay actually has some first-hand knowledge.
The puniness of McKay’s vision pales further still in comparison to the stunning technical virtuosity and linguistic credibility of Mario Van Peebles’ BAADASSSSS!, an homage to the writer-actor-director’s father Melvin. In bright, bold colors and high contrast stretches of overexposed photography, the movie plunges into recreating an early 1970s ethos. Visually, it’s great. Cinematographer Robert Primes and co-editors Nneka Goforth and Anthony Miller have produced with Van Peebles a piece of work that resembles no other. I love the repetitions, the wandering and the re-wandering through California deserts, the image of a black woman seated at a potter’s wheel, the red clay as she spins covering and merging with her skin—all of this is sublime. As is an extraordinary sequence where the back of Van Peebles’ reflection enters the looking glass, and we’re off to see “…all the faces Norman Rockwell never painted,” a Black America as Wonderland, a place where a boy wearing angel’s wings bounces toward Heaven from a trampoline. In between the fanciful opening section and the tense, near-apocalyptic final third in which Mario as Melvin struggles to edit Sweet Sweetback and find a distributor for the film as his health fails and debts mount, there’s something missing. And I’m not sure what that something is, beyond a pace that drags. The actors are generally fine. The three standouts are Joy Bryant as a histrionically star-struck secretary who can’t enter a room without pasting her 8×10 glossy somewhere on a wall; David Alan Grier as porn entrepreneur who nonetheless takes the art of film very seriously; and perhaps best of all, Khleo Thomas as the young Mario. Thomas doesn’t have many lines to speak—it’s a performance given with the eyes. His soulful Mario inhabits a silent world—perhaps the same world that the adult Mario (as Melvin) seeks to find again in that mirror? BAADASSSSS! also provides a refresher course in Hollywood’s ignominious perpetuation of racism on film—against blacks, Chinese, Mexicans, Native Americans. As one Hispanic character notes, “If you weren’t white [in the movies], you were the joke.”
One problem with the Festival’s opening weekend was that there were too many films competing opposite that hadn’t been run during the preceding three weeks worth of press screenings. Not willing to accept certain films on screener tapes, I sacrificed seeing Twilight Samurai to spend time with Isabella Rossellini in The Saddest Music in the World. Huge mistake. Sadistic, ugly, smug, stupid, and needlessly violent, Guy Maddin’s film resorts to amputations and acts of self-immolation whenever the writer-director doesn’t know what else to do, whenever he needs to impale us with his cachet of hip. Maddin may be a nastier son of a bitch than either Lars von Trier or Spike Jonze. In Saddest Music, a bereaved father carries his dead little boy’s heart around in a jar, “preserved in my tears.” When the jar shatters, Maddin’s camera lingers on a shard of glass that pierces the heart through. And the camera lingers and lingers until all the hipsters in the audience are practically slugging one another with battle cries of “Don’t you get it?! Don’t you get it!?” Cleverness isn’t enough. The photographic effects and funhouse sets don’t compensate for the dreary mean-spiritedness that Maddin intends us to wallow in and drink up. Rossellini has long been attracted to misogynistic material, yet I’ve never seen her as degraded as she is here. Maddin plays her double amputation for laughs, or tries to, and her beer-filled glass legs exist only to be smashed, leaving her a cripple a second time, and that during a song-and-dance routine, no less, so that the snickering psychopaths to whom Maddin caters can climax on the horror. For all his delight in perversion, there’s something incredibly naïve about Maddin. It sneaks out in his various treatments of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein classic “The Song is You.” Maddin doesn’t seem to know that jazz musicians have played that tune at breakneck, lightning-fast tempos for decades. Maddin treats it as a funeral dirge, and thinks himself infinitely daring when he speeds it up to a jivey, barbershop, hot club mix, as if he’s really showing those sad weepy clowns something with this raspberry-blowing nose-thumb.
Less offensive yet equally moronic, there’s Patrice Leconte’s new film Intimate Strangers, a boring, solipsistic fiasco that proves, yes, you can choose a worse film than Jet Lag for a closing night gala. Amid glum gray-green fades, bone-dry tone, and august brown tedium, Fabrice Luchini plays at being a baggy-eyed accountant who inexplicably feels energized by visits from the somnambulistic Sandrine Bonnaire, energized enough to prance around in an ancient suit, slapping his hands, turning a dime on his heels to Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour.” If it weren’t for soul, how would high-whites ever express themselves?
May 23, 2004