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Surface Tension: Michael Mann’s “Heat”

In Michael Mann’s wide-screen, West Coast gloss on his own Miami Vice, the locations almost upstage the stars, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Mann is a locations visionary. He sees a city not so much for what it is as for what it might become. Just as Miami remade itself to better resemble its image in Miami Vice, L.A. may rise eventually to Heat‘s desolate, sand­blasted impersonality.

Mann’s City of Lights, where Vin­cent Hanna (Pacino) and Neil McCauley (De Niro) go through their paces as the last of the existential cops and criminals, couldn’t be more re­moved from the gothic, phosphores­cent L.A. of David Fincher’s Seven. Heat’s color scheme is ultracool. In one inconsequential scene set at a con­struction site, Mann finds a 20-foot­-high pile of baby-bunting yellow sand that perfectly balances the film’s basic bleached blues and grays. The image stays in the mind’s eye long after the formulaic plot has faded. So does the ultimate showdown between Vincent and Neil on the far reaches of an air­port runway, where the immediate question of who lives and who dies is dwarfed by the planes roaring over­head. Mann’s use of scale is as mean­ingful as any great modernist painter’s.

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The splendid visuals aside, Heat is a cosmically silly movie — which does­n’t make it any less entertaining. Mann manages to have his romance of ob­sessed masculinity and send it up too. The joke is in the casting. Pacino and De Niro are as much dinosaurs as the parts they play; Mann doesn’t demand a suspension of disbelief. If anything, thee competition for acting honors be­tween these two ethnic superstars (relics of the wilder side of ’70s cine­ma) eclipses the fictional face-off of cop and criminal.

Though there are no big surprises in either performance, my preference is for Pacino, whose head-fakes and er­ratic speech rhythms have the improvisatory flair of the new Knicks. Pacino manages to be playful even when he’s excessive and never less than true even when he’s over the top. Moment to moment, he’s a pleasure to watch.

Pleasure has never been part of De Niro’s game. He’s a lot better here than in Casino (which isn’t saying much), and just about as proficient as he was in GoodFellas. At his best, these days, De Niro seems admirable rather than awesome. Once upon a time, his rigid­ity was a desperate defense against a rage that might erupt at any moment. He could make one both fear and long for the return of the repressed. But over time, the rage imploded into a black hole, sucking the life from him­ — and from anyone who watches. Here, that inner heaviness, though it doesn’t make for a thrilling performance, is right for the character — a career crimi­nal who’s ultimately undone nor by the desire for love he so carefully guards against as by a need for revenge that is the one thing he can’t control.

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Mann has never gotten the credit he deserves as an actor’s director. In Heat, he does well not only by his two stars but also his supporting cast, par­ticularly Val Kilmer as the most volatile of the partners in crime, Ashley Judd as his intermittently loyal wife, and Diana Venora as a woman who knows she’s too smart to stay married to a cop. She’s so smart, in fact, she almost gets away with using the word “detritus” in the middle of a love scene. ❖

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Thomas v. Hill: Days of Our Lives

TV and the Thomas Hearings

The first, unparalleled TV event of 1991 — the gulf war — was distinguished by the ab­sence of what Orrin Hatch, during the sec­ond unparalleled TV event of 1991 — the Thomas confirmation hearings — kept refer­ring to as “raw data.” As spectacle, the gulf war was completely controlled. Mediated by the administration, information was de­livered by newspeople who abdicated their autonomy to become flacks and floor man­agers. The narrative was as simplistic as Top Gun, the images as diagrammatic as a corporate stockholders’ report. Among the reasons that the Hill/Thomas confrontation “played” so well is that it provided a chaot­ic, violent immediacy absent from the war coverage. Caught off guard, the TV people could do little more than set up their cam­eras and roll tape, while the White House was forced to improvise damage-control tactics that shifted daily.

It might be overkill to claim that the Hill/Thomas confrontation is the return of the repressed, but it certainly provided some libidinal compensation. Put it this way: How many of you would have watched another four-day TV marathon if you felt that once again it was being spoon­fed from the top?

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Different as the two debacles were, they had one striking element in common. Like game shows, talk shows, and sitcoms, they involved a dynamic even more basic to TV than the exploitation of violence and sex — ­that of humiliation. For Saddam Hussein, the price of remaining in power was to be publicly thrashed by George Bush and com­pany. For Clarence Thomas, the price for his ascension to the Supreme Court was not a “high-tech lynching,” but something more like a symbolic castration.

To listen, as a friend remarked, to Hatch leading Thomas through a point-by-point denial of Anita Hill’s testimony — “No sen­ator, I never …” talked dirty, read pornog­raphy, mentioned pubic hairs in Coke — ­was to hear the echo of “Yes, Massa, I’m a good boy. I keep my dick in my pocket.” It was the excruciating sound of a black man forced to deny his sexual identity in front of millions.

Indeed, the image of Thomas facing his 14 white male judges, rocking in his chair as if he were going to run amok any minute, suggests an answer to the oft-repeated ques­tion of why Hill — who remained to the last a reluctant witness — had not come forward sooner. As a black woman she would not have wanted to call that image into being, regardless of his aggression against her. An­other explanation is that she suspected she’d be treated as abusively as we saw her­being treated on the TV screen.

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As a spectacle, the hearings were as hallu­cinatory as Alice’s Adventures in Wonder­land. The psychological terrors of sex and race were compounded by the fact that three kinds of events — a fact-finding hear­ing, a sexual harassment trial, and a TV show — were superimposed. The rules were up for grabs: Specter could decide to play the Queen of Hearts, shouting perjury, per­jury, rather than “off with her head,” and no one knew how to stop it. That the Re­publicans prevailed amidst this craziness was the result of two principle factors. First, Hill had both institutionalized misog­yny and institutionalized racism operating against her while Thomas suffered from only the latter. Second, in his dramatic closing speech, Chair Joe Biden ironically awarded Thomas the “benefit of the doubt” slogan that eventually got him over. Then again, Hatch, Simpson, and the behind-the­-scenes White House knew a few things about TV that the Democrats didn’t: turn everything into a story, and tell it between 8 and 11 p.m.

It’s more than luck that Thomas had the advantage of appearing in prime time. And when his Friday evening grandstanding­ — claiming he hadn’t bothered to watch Hill’s testimony, exploiting race to divert atten­tion from sexual harassment — got the equivalent of a “gee-whiz” from the Dems, the Repubs knew their script had been, as they say in L.A., green-lighted. (It was Sen­ator Byrd in the prevote Senate debates, rather than anyone on the committee, who finally argued that Thomas’s refusal to watch Hill’s testimony betrayed a certain lack of ”judicial temperament.” Not to mention megalomania, considering Thom­as also moaned that he had been “wracking his brains” to think of what he could have said to her. I guess if it wasn’t in his head, it didn’t count.)

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Understanding that TV is nothing if not narrative, the Republicans got to work like hack writers from Troma Films, tossing out one high concept after another. Friday’s script — with Hill the dupe of a satanic, left-­wing conspiracy — developed second-act problems when they couldn’t work her sup­port for Bork into the story line. Saturday was the spurned woman scenario; with the mention of Fatal Attraction, 11 courtesy calls became proof of erotomania. By Sunday, the scorned woman had developed delusions — possibly to cancel any weight that Hill’s successful polygraph test might carry.

“Character is plot.” Perhaps the Dems had never heard this fundamental rule of screen writing. If they had, they would have realized that their script had more potential than the Republicans’. Thomas had a clear-­cut motive for lying: He was an ambitious man who wanted to get on the Supreme Court. But no one on the committee had the guts to say that flat out.

The Republicans were also aware that, on TV, it matters not what you say but how many times you say it — the law of sound­bites and commercials. The mystery of why she followed him from the Department of Education to EEOC was solved by Hill sim­ply saying she thought the harassing behav­ior had stopped after the initial episode. No matter. “Why did she follow him?” was repeated again and again. (I gave up count­ing after 47.) Hatch did his Is-it-believable-­that-anyone-asking-a-woman-for-a-date­-would-talk-to-her-about-Long-Dong-Silver? routine almost as often. No one challenged it as a misleading question. He wouldn’t have talked dirty to her in order to get a date. He would have talked dirty to her after she refused him, as a way of proving that, even if she wouldn’t go to bed with him, he still had the power to fuck her over.

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Despite the adept use of TV by the Re­pubs, there was something they didn’t an­ticipate and couldn’t co-opt — a runaway script. The eruption of women’s anger that surprised the establishment, derailing gov­ernment “process” and network TV sched­uling, was fueled by what happened at the hearing and by the outcome of the vote. Hill, as the catalyst for that anger, deserves our gratitude and admiration.

Women — not all women, but significant numbers of them — are furious, not only at the way Hill was abused, but also at the failure of the men on the tribunal to grasp that the personal is political. Thomas’s al­leged invasion of Hill’s psyche — with words alone — is as political an action as the inva­sion of Iraq. The description of such an abuse of power isn’t dirt; it’s sexual politics. That’s what the men didn’t get.

The danger now is that the anger will be repressed, transformed once again into the kind of depression that’s characterized the women’s movement for over 10 years. Quicker than you can say “wham barn, thank you, ma’am,” the networks took up Thomas’s call for “healing.”

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The night following the Senate vote, Ted Koppel hosted an expanded Nightline, an open forum on “A Process Run Amok.” Among those speaking from the audience was Nina Totenberg, who broke Hill’s story on NPR. Senator Simpson, who like many committee members mixed up the identi­ties of Hill and Thomas, switching names and confusing titles with increasing fre­quency as the days wore on, here managed to call Nina, “Anita.” Thomas and Hill, by obstructing white male business as usual, had been fused into a single, irritating Oth­er. Now Anita and Nina were united in Simpson’s mind as the new “bluestock­ings” — women who use their education to destroy men.

After an hour of challenges by black women, white women, and black men to a process that excludes them, Koppel handed the mike to two Reaganauts who suggested that in the future all this trouble could be avoided if the White House consulted with a few senators before announcing his nomi­nations. Faced with such tunnel vision, women mustn’t lose sight of how much was accomplished in a short time. Not only was support for Thomas reduced but the Senate was forced to deal openly with something it never intended to get into.

The day of the vote, women crowded the steps of the Capitol chanting, “We’ll re­member in November,” a dispassionate statement of fact. For senators who voted for Thomas it probably sounded unnecessar­ily vengeful. I myself prefer something with more bite. Vagina dentata, gentlemen? ❖

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Kids: Skating the Edge

Skating the Edge

Given that the element of surprise has been preempted by six months of advance word of mouth, critical controversy, cover stories in Artforum and New York, and a surfeit of profiles and interviews, it can’t hurt to begin by describing the opening sequence of Kids, a film by Larry Clark written by Harmony Korine, coming this summer, unrated, to your local art theater.

The first image we see is of a teenage girl and boy, framed in tight close-up, sucking face. The light is limpid, the focus shallow, so shallow that it’s as if there’s nothing else in the world but these two kids going at it, tongue to tongue, without passion, but with deep dedication. It’s an image that simultaneously hits one in the face and draws one in. And it goes on for a very long time, long enough to make one aware of a few crucial things: that although this is undeniably a film image (what else could it be with all that grain dancing around on the screen), the kids seem incredibly real (in other words, not like actors); that they seem very young — she looks barely 14, he might be two years older; that the activity they are performing is not simulated (these kids might never kiss each other in actual life but for the camera that’s just what they’re doing); and that the position in which the film has placed us vis-a-vis this activity is uncomfortably close.

This first shot that seems to last forever, but might be as brief as 15 seconds, gives us time to become self-conscious about our own response as we confront the activity that adult America, as it were, wants to shove out of sight, or at least turn into an abstraction. Pubescent sex, that’s what we’re looking at.

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The close-up is followed by a slightly more distanced shot. Now we can see that the girl and boy are on the bed in the girl’s room. It’s a pretty room filled with objects (stuffed animals and Beastie Boys records) signifying a privileged upbringing (it’s money that gives her skin that golden glow) and confirming that she’s as young as we feared she might be. The narrative kicks in. The boy whose name is Telly is pressing the girl to have sex. He’s insistent, she’s ambivalent. The pace of the editing accelerates. The fourth shot, or maybe its the fifth, is notably eccentric. The hand-held camera hovers just above the heart of the matter — the crotches of the girl and the boy. They’re still wearing their underpants. Nevertheless, it’s the kind of image that makes you wonder if you’ve seen more than you’ve seen.

The girl eventually acquiesces to the boy’s single-mindedness. He climbs on top of her. There’s a jump cut that breaks the real time continuity, rushing us forward as we realize that he’s penetrated her. We see them from the waist up: he’s pounding away and she’s protesting in pain. And then the music kicks in — jammer, jammer, jammer — and above it we hear the boy’s voiceover: “Virgins, I love ’em… ”

An adrenalizing movie moment, it’s thrill is as much the result of precise timing and layering of sound and image as it is about what’s happening in the action. Stylistically, it’s the opposite of the “Aerate” images that precede it. And although the action has turned nasty, it’s somehow easier to take than that first kiss. The “movieness” of it is pleasurably reassuring. It carries us along — out of our skins and out of our minds. Not like the first shot which, by giving us time to wonder about just what was going on, put the whole scary mess of teen sex in our laps. Made us uncomfortable by forcing us to be aware of ourselves watching something that’s forbidden.

Is this art or exploitation? And who’s been caught looking?

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Don’t say it’s just Larry Clark, the notorious Larry Clark whose photographs of adolescents fetishize the fragile glamour of young bodies yearning for obliteration.

Insistently voyeuristic, Clark’s point of view forces an uncomfortable confrontation with one’s own fascination, desire, and identification. What’s most disturbing about Clark’s work is that his subjects are, by virtue of their youth, extremely vulnerable (though I doubt that Clark, who attributes enormous power to a particular type of boy beauty, would see it that way).

What makes it great is that it claims attention for teen sexuality, or at least teen boy sexuality. It doesn’t make polite conversation about it; it puts it right in your face. “I always wanted to make the great American teenage movie,” says Clark. “The kind of film that’s real immediate, like Cassavetes’s Shadows but in 1994. I didn’t want to make a documentary. I wanted to make a film that could play in malls across America.”

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I’m sitting with Clark in a crowded Tribeca restaurant. He’s fled his loft where the air conditioner’s broken and the phone keeps ringing. The loft is too small for all the stuff it holds. The walls are covered with art: a Mike Kelley, a Cady Noland, a Richard Prince, a small Sue Williams drawing of a girl with three cocks stuffed in her mouth. Amid the clutter on another wall is a drawing by his nine-year-old daughter that says “I love you Daddy.” Clark also has a son who’s nearly 12. The children live with their mother from whom he’s divorced, but on weekends they stay with him. “I’m a good father,” he says, and I believe him although he sounds as if he suspects I might not.

Clark is a thoughtful, serious 52-year-old man with a touch of the military in his demeanor (he was drafted and sent to Vietnam in the mid ’60s). His voice is pitched low, edged with a drawl and a hint of adenoidal whine. His face is thin and craggy with deepset eyes and a long nose (the diametrical opposite of the faces he loves to photograph). His beard is scruffy, his hair clubbed back and under control. He seems a surprisingly sweet man and also a person who runs on anger. In lots of ways, Clark doesn’t compute but it’s worth noting that he seems comfortable being an adult. Even when he’s carrying a skateboard, there’s nothing kid-like about him.

We’re talking about how close Kids seems to Tulsa, Clark’s first book. Shot between 1963 and 1971 and published in ’71, it immediately established his reputation, in Vince Aletti’s phrase, “as the period’s most savage eye.” Tulsa is an insider’s look at the teenage Oklahoma drug culture (guys with needles in their arm and their dicks hanging out, guys and guns, with a couple of women thrown in for good measure). Intimate though it is, Tulsa is couched strictly in the third person. There’s no direct interaction of subject and camera, none of the I/you exchange that charges Teenage Lust — Clark’s second book, published 13 years later — and the decade of work that followed.

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“I wanted my first film to be like my first book — a straight narrative shot documentary style. When I first laid out Tulsa, I had put in pictures of people looking at the camera and then I realized that in movies, no one looks at the camera so I took all those pictures out. It was my little trick to make it look like a movie.”

In fact, Clark tried in 1970 to turn Tulsa into a movie; he found the 16mm sync rig too cumbersome to handle by himself and soon went back to his Leica. For the next 10 years, he says, he was too strung out on drugs to pick up a still camera let alone a movie camera. It was during this period that he did time for shooting a guy during a card game. Of the shooting, he says, “I was doing speed; it seemed like the right thing to do.”

In the early ’80s, he started to think seriously about making a film about the teenage experience, but none of the material he worked on panned out. By then he was married, his first child had been born. He’d somewhat cleaned up his act. Guy Trebay, who’d written a Voice cover story about Clark, remembers the photographer approaching him about writing a screenplay. Trebay says he’d go over to Clark’s loft, they’d toss around various ideas, Clark would show him tapes of Flipper.

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Clark got the idea for Kids during the summer of ’92 when he was photographing skateboarders in Washington Square Park. “It was what I called the summer of condoms. When I would go to the park, they would be giving out these condoms and all the kids had them and they were always talking about safe sex and condoms and I was convinced, they had me going so well. I was skating so I could keep up when I took pictures of them, and my son was skating a bit.

So after about six months, I’m just one of the guys, they’re just totally open and honest with me, and I find out no one is using condoms. Hence the safe sex thing is ‘Let’s have sex with a virgin.’ And when I’d say, ‘What if she gets pregnant?’ they’d just say, ‘That’s not meant to be.’ But the girls do get pregnant and they have abortions and their mothers never know. And some of them get herpes the first time they have sex. You can make a list of the things that can happen to you the first time you have sex.

“Back in ’92, when they were having the rave scene, these 14- and 15-year-old girls were coming from uptown, they were from richer families, and they’d go to these raves and take acid and mushrooms and stay out all weekend. And they’d plan these cover stories so their parents would think they were at a slumber party.

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“And so I thought, well, I’ve always wanted to make the great American teenage movie. Why not make it about what’s going on today. And when people ask me what they should take away from the film, I say that they should try to look their kids in the eye and talk to them one-on-one. I mean, I’m a parent, but parents don’t have a clue. They forget what it was like when they were kids.

“I knew skaters would be the best actors. They have a style and a presence. Everyone hates skaters so they’re forced to be tough and confrontational. They’re kicked out of every place, the police hate them. They’re kind of outlaws.”

Ten years from now, when viewers look at Kids, what I think will be most striking are the performances: the rhythms of the kids’ behavior, their contagious energy. The kids in Kids are neither the kids of sitcom nor are they much like the teen movie idols from James Dean to River Phoenix. For one thing, they’re impulsive rather than introspective. They physicalize their feelings rather than brood about them. And they’re so fast — with their bodies, with words, with emotions. They’re 17- and 18-year-olds playing 14- and 16-year-olds, which is very different from 23-year-olds playing 16-year-olds.

From the moment the film went into production, there were rumors that some of the actors were underage. According to Kids producer Cary Woods, “The casting is age appropriate. The kids in the sexual-content scenes are 17 and above. The others actors range from 13 to 72.” Woods is an experienced and savvy Hollywood professional; I doubt that he’d risk a felony charge to be in business with Clark.

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But how did Clark get such vivid performances out of non-actors? “I just know them real well and they trusted me so they were willing to relax and go with the lines. They could change a word or two if it was more comfortable, but they had to stick to the script. In a way they were like method actors, they really felt what they were doing. And because I knew them, I knew how I wanted them to be. They didn’t know, but I did. All these little bits of business, they’re things I’d seen kids do. So there was that ‘Come on, jump up and down, laugh more, keep laughing,’ whatever it takes. The tough ones were the sex scenes because it was like giggle time.”

I mention that a woman I know had been creeped out by the film because she was sure that Clark had instructed the kids in how to stick their tongues in each other’s mouths. “I think they pretty much know how to stick their tongues in each others’ mouths,” he says, laughing and blushing. “They didn’t need much coaching in the kissing department.”

I can’t tell you how odd it is to see Larry Clark blush — a guy who’s hung with teen hustlers on the Deuce, who made his camera a third party to countless sexual encounters, who can sit in a crowded restaurant and talk unselfconsciously about fucking and gang rape and incest. And it wasn’t a shameful blush, it was about openness rather than hiding. At Sundance, I’d gotten into one of those conversations about would-you-let-your-kids-see-this-film. Yes, of course I would. That is, I would if I had kids of my own, which I don’t; but, I said, I would have had qualms about letting them, these hypothetical kids, act in it. Well, there was something about seeing Clark blush that took most of the qualms away.

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Of course, it’s easy to talk about hypothetical kids. Hypothetical and invisible is how America wants its kids to be. If you want evidence of that, just look at the backlash against Kids. The film caused a stir when it was sneak-previewed at Sundance last January. Several critics, including yours truly, claimed it was extraordinary; there were also some in the audience who loathed the film. A few months later director Paul Schrader did a smart, supportive interview with Clark for Artforum. And then the dismissals started pouring in.

I admit that no one will be able to see Kids as 350 people did at Sundance — the film just coming at them with no expectations to get in the way. When I saw Kids a second time, the shock was gone and I wasn’t sure it was quite as amazing as I’d first thought. The third viewing confirmed my original take — that this film is a measure of its genre. That doesn’t mean it’s a perfect film or that it says everything that can be said about adolescence — it certainly doesn’t say much about girlhood. I hope it’s not the last film about teenage sex; it’s more like the first.

It is not, however, the only teen film to cause a ruckus. Every few years, there’s a film that makes people crazy by zeroing in on what the next generation is doing: Blackboard Jungle, Rebel Without a Cause, Splendor in the Grass, A Clockwork Orange, Over the Edge, Menace II Society. Most deal with violence. Only Splendor in the Grass, which seems quaint and even silly today, risks showing the disruptive aspects of sexuality and repression.

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Kids is a cautionary tale about teenage sex in the age of AIDS. Twenty years ago, one might have labeled the connection it makes between sex and death as romantic or puritanical. Today, the connection is a fact of life. And maybe that’s why it’s taken Clark till now to make a film.

What’s important is that it comes down on the side of kids as sexual beings (although not as predatory beings — Telly is no role model) in a culture that’s desperate to deny them their sexuality. Kids doesn’t shy away from that feeling of being possessed by your own body all the time.

So to complain, as Caryn James did in a recent New York Times piece, that Kids has been “hyped to death” (compared to what? Apollo 13?) is ridiculous. Her dismissal of Kids is surprisingly obtuse. After pointlessly comparing the film to Dead End (whose lyrically photographed urban bad boys are safely asexual), James claims that Kids offers an “exaggerated depiction of a genuine problem that it doesn’t try to analyze” and that in its “least realistic choice, the characters live in a world without visible parents.”

I don’t know what kind of analysis James expects. It seemed obvious to me that the kids’ problem is precisely that their parents have made themselves invisible, have disappeared on them.

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Kids and Safe, Todd Haynes’s film about a woman with environmental illness, are both AIDS films. Perhaps the most radical American independent films of the decade, they show that American culture is lethal: it kills through isolation and alienation. It’s astonishing then that both are faulted by presumably intelligent critics for being unclear, or insufficiently analytic. How could they be any clearer, given that they’re dealing with complicated issues? And how can you demand a voice of authority in a film that’s saying authority is what sucks?

For the MPAA ratings board to slap Kids with NC-17 is to withhold agency from teenagers who are perfectly equipped to decide whether this film represents them or not. (The MPAA’s idea of a PG-13 film is Mad Love, in which teen idols Drew Barrymore and Chris O’Donnell are runaway lovers who share a bedroom in which there are no condoms in sight. The logic here seems to be that being explicit about fucking would be more damaging to teenage viewers than implicitly promoting unsafe sex.)

To dismiss Kids on the grounds that it reflects only the voyeurism and perversity of Larry Clark (the line of some sophisticates) is to read the movie solely through Clark’s autobiographical Teenage Lust and the photographic work he’s exhibited since then. Yes, there’s a parallel between Telly’s fixation on scoring virgins and boasting about it to his friends and Clark’s obsession with taking and exhibiting photos of teenage dick. But Telly is at an age when he believes that sexuality is determined by where he puts his dick. Clark’s photographic work suggests that sexuality is a more layered, precarious affair.

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What I don’t admire in those photographs is that they intentionally provoke a question about where the photographer puts his dick, and then, by evading the answer, leaves us feeling uncool or overly moralistic for being troubled about the possible slippage of art into life. What I love about them is their expression of impossible desire — the desire not merely to possess an object but to crawl inside it and become it.

But Kids is not Teenage Lust. Kids is no more voyeuristic than your average Truffaut film. Clark just takes a closer look at more explicit behavior than Truffaut ever dared. If Clark’s photographs are more about Clark than the objects of his camera, then Kids is more about the kids on the screen — if for no other reason than these non-actors haven’t the skill to sustain in front of the camera anyone’s fantasy but their own. Which is why Clark chose them in the first place.

The other answer to the charge that Kids is about middle-aged men (Clark, executive producer Gus Van Sant, distributors Harvey and Bob Weinstein) projecting their fantasies on young boys is that Kids is as much Harmony Korine’s film as it is Larry Clark’s. Clark couldn’t have made Kids if he hadn’t found Harmony.

Harmony met Clark about three years ago when, says Harmony, “I was still a kid.” Harmony still seems like a kid — closer to a 16-year-old than to the 22-year-old that he actually is. He’s so much like a kid — some genius kid — that it seems ridiculous to refer to him by his last name. Hence, Harmony.

They met when Clark was photographing skateboarders in Washington Square. Harmony was a serious skater for five or six years, which, because he appears so fragile, is hard to imagine. Harmony started riffing to Clark about movies and photography. He told him about a 35-page script he’d written about a kid whose father took him to a prostitute on his 13th birthday. “The kid’s father was rubbing his ass and stuff,” says Harmony, eager to fill me in on all the gory details. Harmony sent Clark the script.

Months later, Clark asked him if he wanted to write a movie about skaters. He told Harmony that he wanted the movie to be about a kid whose way of having safe sex is to only fuck virgins and for there to be something about HIV. Harmony wrote it in three weeks to prove to himself that he could do it. He showed Clark pages along the way. Once it was finished, he says, Clark never asked him to change anything. The script that went into preproduction is exactly the script that’s on the screen minus a few lines here and there — an anomaly in the world of feature filmmaking.

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Even critics of the film admit that Harmony has an ear for kidspeak. But what’s radical about Kids is its bare-bones minimalist structure, which, being the modernist artist — as opposed to the Hollywood hack — he is, Harmony leaves out in the open for all to see. Kids follows a loose-knit group of New York teens through a single hot summer day. There are three main characters: Telly, who dubs himself “the virgin surgeon” ; Jennie, who lost her virginity to Telly and has just discovered that she’s gotten HIV from him; and Casper, Telly’s best friend, a skateboard ace who just wants to be as stoned as one can get without putting a needle in his arm. Telly’s desire for fresh flesh twined with Jennie’s need to find Telly before he strikes again make up the through-line of the film. But it’s Casper who commits the final unconscionable act and in so doing is bound to Telly and Jennie in a ghostly triangle.

After he finished Kids, Harmony wrote two more scripts: Ken Park, which Clark will direct, and Gummo, which he’s going to direct himself. Ken Park, says Clark, is about the interaction between kids and their parents. And Gummo, well, Harmony would rather not talk about Gummo until its done. Cary Woods plans to put Gummo into production this fall, budgeted at about $1 million, with Ken Park to follow. Harmony will shoot in the Midwest with an entirely different crew from the Kids crew. He needs to separate to insure that Gummo is his alone.

If truth be told, Kids is a little too linear for Harmony’s taste. He wrote it that way because it was for Larry; Ken Park‘s a little looser but it still has a story, he explains. But Gummo, he says, is going to be like nothing ever made before: “I think you should put everything you love in a film. Why do you have to connect one thing to another?”

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Among the things that Harmony loves: the Marx Brothers, the Shaggs, Linda Manz, Tristam Shandy, Godard’s Germany Nine Zero 90, a recording of Daniel Johnston where he sounds like he’s having a nervous breakdown, things that have mistakes in them. The best performance he ever saw was given by his high school acting teacher who had cerebral palsy and got up in class and played King Lear.

Radically different personalities, Korine and Clark have a few things in common. They were both runty kids. Neither are native New Yorkers, but the city is embedded in their work. Both grew up in households where the camera was a professional tool. Clark’s mother was a baby photographer; he used to assist her, going door to door, trying to get parents to pay $10.95 to make their child immortal. “It’s called kidnapping,” he says dryly. Korine’s father was a documentary filmmaker. In the ’70s, he was involved in a respected independent TV series called South Bound.

Harmony is very evasive about his family background. When I first met him, he told me he traveled with his father in a carnival, which is in a way true. His father was making a film about carnivals at the time. On a second meeting, when I tell him I found out who his parents are, he says simply that he didn’t want anyone to think he got where he is because his parents had film connections. Not to worry, Harmony, regional documentarians don’t have connections.

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Once the truth is out, he talks about his father with affection. He says he respects his parents for understanding that he needed to be on his own. When he was in his early teens, he came to New York to live with his grandmother. He wrote Kids in her apartment. Now he has an apartment on the edge of Soho (near Supreme, the shop for true skateboarders) that he shares with his girlfriend, Chloe Sevigny, who plays Jennie in Kids. They seem like best friends who can’t keep their hands off each other. “This is the first time,” he says, “I’ve been self-sufficient.”

A Ritalin kid, Harmony says he’s never slept more than an hour at a time. His parents used to rent enough videotapes for him to watch all night. I’d think this was a huge lie except that it’s the only way he could have seen as many films as he has. He prefers, however, to view films in theaters. He figured out how to write scripts from watching films. But he’s not interested in making films about films, or using them as a screen. He’s open about what moves him in the real world. Forget Quentin Tarantino. Welcome to post-postmodernism. Authenticity is back in the mix.

Cary Woods informs me that Harmony and Larry have each made a music video for the Kids soundtrack. “I didn’t want to tell you,” says Harmony, “because I hate music videos. They’re just commercials. But this is more of a documentary. It’s about a kid with epilepsy and his mother.” The song is by Daniel Johnston, a Texas singer-songwriter, who, Harmony says, is obsessed with Casper the Friendly Ghost. “He’s written 40 songs about Casper.” The character Casper in Kids is named in honor of Johnston.

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Harmony’s video has no fast editing, no clips from the movie, no shots of the band. He doesn’t think MTV will play it. It seems, like Harmony, ahead of its time, which means it’s exactly on the mark. It’s also extremely moving. The epileptic kid is a metaphor for teenage turmoil, for the feeling that you’re jumping out of your skin.

An inveterate maker of inventories, Harmony has compiled a list of over a thousand coming-of-age movies. Some of his favorites: O.C. & Stiggs, Chantal Akerman’s Portrait of a Young Girl…, Alan Clarke’s Christine, Pixote, Los Olvidados. None of them, however, are the great teenage movie. “I don’t think it’s been made yet.” “Not Kids?” I ask. “No,” he says matter-of-factly. “It might take a trilogy.”

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Anita Hill vs. Clarence Thomas: When Conservatives Nipped the Concept of Sexual Harassment in the Bud

It was the most riveting daytime soap opera since the Watergate hearings — an all-male chorus line of U.S. senators attacking the morals and motives of Anita Hill, a conservative law professor who had accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Thomas went on to be narrowly confirmed by the Senate, 52-48.

As Richard Goldstein reported in his postmortem in the October 29, 1991, issue of the Voice, “If feminists regard the Thomas hearings as a failure, the right truly will have won. In reality, this was an annunciation of a new, gender-based politics, with the potential to challenge the traditional configuration of left and right.” Well, as the current confirmation hearings on Brett Kavanaugh are revealing, perhaps the challenge was not strong enough. That said, Goldstein also pointed out how even back then conservatives were happy to demonize the press: “Here was a network of women journalists speaking truth to entrenched male power. The right lost no time in demanding their heads.”

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Amy Taubin zeroed in on the optics coming out of the hearing room: “Caught off guard, the TV people could do little more than set up their cameras and roll tape, while the White House was forced to improvise damage-control tactics that shifted daily.” The Voice film critic exposed the holes in the GOP’s script: “Understanding that TV is nothing if not narrative, the Republicans got to work like hack writers from Troma Films, tossing out one high concept after another. Friday’s script — with Hill the dupe of a satanic, left-wing conspiracy — developed second-act problems when they couldn’t work her support for [conservative judge Robert] Bork into the story line. Saturday was the spurned woman scenario; with the mention of Fatal Attraction, 11 courtesy calls became proof of erotomania. By Sunday, the scorned woman had developed delusions — possibly to cancel any weight that Hill’s successful polygraph test might carry.”

Laurie Stone asked why polls showed that a majority of women believed Thomas, even though “Hill passed a lie detector test. She had nothing to gain and everything to lose by testifying. She spoke credibly, weaving a story about Thomas he then proceeded to act out. Hill described a man who was crude, inept, driven. He asked for a date but couldn’t take no for an answer. He hammered away, wanting to know why he was being turned down. He used his authority to feel big at the expense of making a woman feel small.” Stone also discusses the social relations that got steamrolled by the male senators: “Throughout the hearings, the divided nature of human response was simplified or denied. Lost were distinctions between sexual harassment and harmless flirting. Flirting disappeared from public discussion, as if all inviting lines might conceal nasty messages. But every woman knows the difference between sex play that’s welcome and being hit on while radiating don’t. That don’t is the crux of sexual harassment.”

And finally, the absurdity of an all-male bevy of senators closing ranks around a big fan of the porn actor Long Dong Silver is captured in Lynda Barry’s “A Cock & Bull Story.”

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ACCORDING TO HOU

Leading Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien received some much-deserved U.S. exposure in 1999, when a retrospective of his work landed in New York. This fall’s Hou-centered series at Astoria’s Museum of the Moving Image, however, ups the ante, offering not only screenings of Hou’s 17 features — all on 35mm, no less — but also a program rounded out with related works from other filmmakers, including Jia Zhangke’s I Wish I Knew (Oct. 17) and Wu Nien-jen’s A Borrowed Life (Sept. 28). Additionally, several of the Hou screenings will be preceded by introductions from a league of notable critics: J. Hoberman (The Puppetmaster, Sept. 13), Amy Taubin (Three Times, Sept. 14), Jonathan Rosenbaum (The Sandwich Man, Oct. 5), and series organizer Richard I. Suchenski of Bard College, who presents tonight’s opening screening of Hou’s Flowers of Shanghai.

Mondays-Sundays, 7 p.m. Starts: Sept. 12. Continues through Oct. 17, 2014

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Jonas Mekas, Raving Maniac, Champion of Visionaries

Visionaries: Jonas Mekas and the (mostly) American Avant-Garde isn’t a film about its subject so much as his spirit. Chuck Workman’s latest clip job, which had its local premiere at the last Tribeca Film Festival, doesn’t look like a Mekas film, but this celebration of (mostly) American avant-garde filmmakers evokes Mekas’s informality and inclusive enthusiasm—as Andy Warhol tells an interviewer of the self-described “raving maniac of cinema,” Jonas “just got excited about anything.”

There’s a sense in which Mekas might be regarded as the movie’s author. Arriving here from Lithuania by way of a German DP camp around 1950, Mekas not only made his own movies but, as a tireless writer (in the Voice for 16 years), editor, fund-raiser, and organizer, created an art movement that he continues to champion—even now, at the age of 88. In its rambling, offhanded way, Visionaries notes New American Cinema landmarks (Meshes of the Afternoon, Flaming Creatures, Wavelength) and maps its territory with statements—visual and verbal—by the movement’s prominent members, fellow travelers, and advocates, including Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Ken Jacobs, Peter Kubelka, Norman Mailer, David Lynch, P. Adams Sitney, and Amy Taubin.

There’s not much that’s historical or even systematic to Workman’s impressionistic approach, but there’s something to be said for his film’s immediacy and insistence on the image—a lot, actually. Jumping from a Shirley Clark city symphony to a Brakhage mega-home-movie to a Harry Smith abstraction, Visionaries‘ heedless montage brought back the sense of crazy possibility that excited me when, as a teenage kid from Queens, I first encountered Mekas’s world.

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Southland Tales Again: No Direction Home

Once more into the breach: For those who missed its mayfly run, Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales is newly available on DVD in appropriately letter-boxed format. Reviled by many, championed by a few—mainly past and present Voice critics, including Manohla Dargis, Amy Taubin, and Nathan Lee, who named it his best movie of the year—Kelly’s follow-up to his 2001 Donnie Darko is more film maudit than the basis for a midnight cult. The Darko DVD restored all manner of explanatory and elaborating material to the film; Southland‘s seems nearly identical to the release version. There’s a George W. Bush cameo I don’t recall seeing before, but nothing restored from the longer cut that had its disastrous world premiere at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. Perfunctory extras include an on-set infomercial and an animated cartoon explicating the end of the world with faux-childlike graphics.

As you may have heard, Southland Tales is a busily convoluted satire of American rhetoric—visual and otherwise—that often takes the form of a perpetual newscast in which everybody is watching everyone else, usually on computers. The movie is specifically set in an alternative universe in which 9/11 has been superseded by a nuclear event in Texas, but the various bromides, slogans, and clichés are all too familiar; so is the culture war between infantile-anarcho-“Neo-Marxist”-porn-star- performance-artist-documentary- filmmakers and a globalizing Republican Party devoted to maximizing corporate profits and applying the Patriot Act to cyberspace.

There’s a presidential election to which California holds the key; issues include energy dependence, unending war in the Middle East, and a sex scandal involving an amnesiac action hero (Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson), married to the daughter of the Republican VP candidate, and a militantly humorless porn star (Sarah Michelle Gellar) who calls herself “Krysta Now.” “Now” is the operative concept. As the tone oscillates between banality and grandeur, amid jokes variously deadpan and obvious, the Rock ricochets through the image flow with totally convincing incomprehension.

Southland Tales was conceived as widescreen spectacle, but Kelly’s deliberately cheesy CNN graphics and interpolated music videos—not to mention his large cast of TV personalities—are naturally suited to the home screen; it’s possible the movie will find its audience on Netflix.

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A History of Cronenberg

David Cronenberg’s career spans four decades, 20-plus films (including 16 features), multiple viral strains, and a ton of enthusiastic Voice notices. Indeed, he may be the best-reviewed filmmaker in this paper’s history. A sampling of raves:

Shivers a/k/a They Came From Within
(1975, Image DVD): “A slap in the face of bourgie morality and a cautionary tale about the fragility of civilization.” Amy Taubin

Scanners (1981, MGM DVD): “Images of intellectualized grisliness that paralyze your brain while they nauseate your guts. Cronenberg handily doubles your displeasure.” Carrie Rickey

Videodrome
(1983, Criterion DVD)
: “A Bosch-ian brew of lurid s&m, hallucinogenic TV transmissions, and biomorphism run amok.”J. Hoberman

The Fly (1986, Fox DVD): “Not since Psycho has there been a movie so completely drenched with modernist malaise and yet also such a deeply felt work of art.” Andrew Sarris

Dead Ringers (1988, Warner DVD): “Directing against splatterific expectations, Cronenberg serves this shocker with cool, Langian restraint.” J. Hoberman

Crash (1997, New Line DVD): “Uncompromising in its melancholia, Crash establishes a profound sense of seeking comfort in the crevices of a lacerating, metallic world.” J. Hoberman

eXistenZ (1999, Dimension DVD): “Almost buoyant in its creepiness and positively bejeweled in its disgust.” J. Hoberman

Spider (2002, Columbia Tristar DVD): “More poetic than clinical in its approach to schizophrenia, suffused with existential dread, this evocation of psychological torment is both sensationally grim and exquisitely realized.” J. Hoberman

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Persistence of Memory

Memento takes the sensation of waking up in a strange bed beside a complete stranger and totalizes it. The movie is part Alice in Wonderland mind trip, part Point Blank revenge quest—a tale told in reverse order over a series of overlapping flashbacks. The video stores are filled with examples of retro-noir and neo-noir, but Christopher Nolan’s audacious timebender is something else. Call it meta-noir.

As in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal or Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow, the temporal river flows backward—sequence by sequence, in 10-minute increments. Memento opens with a killing, then shows the buildup, then the events that lead up to that. Up until the last scene, it keeps beginning again. Each flashback triggers another. The gimmick serves to keep the viewer hyper-vigilant, but the narrative involves a second complication. Dependent on audience recollection, the movie features a protagonist who, traumatized by the murder of his wife and a blow to the head, has lost his short-term memory. Each scene starts with Leonard (Guy Pearce), blank and “innocent,” confronting anew the mystery of how he got there.

Leonard is a former insurance-claims investigator searching, like the protagonist of The Fugitive, for his wife’s killer—albeit navigating near-blind through time and space. He comes to consciousness in the midst of a chase and wonders who is running after (and shooting at) whom. He finds a guy stuffed in the closet and has to figure out if whatever happened took place in his motel room. (And if so, just how many has he rented?) Leonard stares at Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), the woman with whom he appears to have arranged a meeting, and puzzles why. Did she set him up to kill the ubiquitous Teddy (Joe Pantoliano)? Or rather, will she?

As befits so meta a movie hero, Leonard is pitifully dependent on camera technology. “Since my injury, I can’t make new memories,” he explains more than once, sometimes to the same person. Upon meeting anyone for what could be the first time, he has to quickly take a Polaroid and scrawl a caption on the photo. Struggling to find a pen to note down some vital information before it slips away, this wildly unreliable narrator is a walking text. His pockets are full of annotated snapshots and his hands covered with addresses, but the crucial clues are tattooed, in mirror-friendly reversed lettering, across his torso: “John G. raped and murdered your wife.”

Watching Memento is a unique experience: tense, irritating, and all-absorbing. Indeed, there is another chronological strand to consider. Leonard’s backward-forward investigation, with each scene supposedly bringing us closer to the meaning of the events we’ve seen or knowledge of the trauma that inspired them, is intercut with black-and-white footage of Leonard in a motel room on the phone, telling the tale of an insurance claimant who suffered a similar condition. To whom is he talking? And when?

Slight and feral, Guy Pearce seems to tunnel into the movie, hurling himself repeatedly at the all-knowing characters, Natalie and Teddy—who, in perhaps creating Leonard and manipulating him to their own ends, complete the film’s bizarre oedipal triangle. (The casting provides another subtext: Two veterans of The Matrix confound one of the framed heroes of L.A. Confidential.) Teddy, the man Leonard initially—or rather, ultimately—kills, could be his only friend or his cynical controller. In either case, his is the only alternative voice. It’s Teddy who asks Leonard how he happens to be driving a Jaguar, or points out that, given Leonard’s less than total recall, revenge would be pointless—he’d instantly forget it.

Adding several extra dimensions and considerable confidence to the 29-year-old Nolan’s tricksy first feature, Following (1999), Memento may be a stunt, but it’s a remarkably philosophical one. The movie is a tour de force of frustration, a perverse tribute to the tyranny of cinema’s inexorable one-way flow, and in effect, an ad for a home DVD player. It’s also an epistemological thriller that’s almost serious in posing the question: How is it that we know ourselves?

Throughout, Leonard insists on the importance of fact over memory and, bravely pragmatic, argues against his own subjectivity: “I have to believe in a world outside my mind. I have to believe that my actions have meaning, even if I don’t remember them.” The movie’s final trick plays on the audience’s similar faith. Memento may be a Möbius strip, but it snaps like a slingshot in jolting you back to linear time. Now where was I? It’s a punch line for all the movies ever made.




Chantal Akerman’s La Captive is another sort of psycho-epistemological inquiry that asks: How can we know another? As noted by Amy Taubin last week, this is the must-see of “Rendez-Vous With French Cinema.” An intractable, object-like movie with many pleasing symmetries, Akerman’s distributor-less gloss on the fifth novel of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past begins with a quotidian conquest of time. Wealthy young Simon studies a home movie of his lover, Ariane, as she frolics with several young women on the beach. He repeatedly runs the footage through the projector, staring at the image and painfully enunciating, “I . . . really . . . like . . . you.”

As Simon (Stanislas Merhar) casts his shadow on the screen, eclipsing the phantom object of his desire, so Akerman casts him in a version of Vertigo. He pursues Ariane’s car as it glides through a posh, empty Paris, stalks her in an art gallery, ravishes her in her sleep. Ariane (Sylvie Testud) can be provocatively plain—even homely—but she is fetishized by the unwavering force of Simon’s obsession. Like Proust’s Marcel and Albertine, the two live together in his family’s apartment, but it is what Ariane does when she is apart from him that most fascinates the tormented Simon. (As Proust’s narrator explains, “It was in myself that Albertine’s possible actions were performed. Of each of the people whom we know we possess a double. . . . “)

In adapting Proust, Akerman eschews the temporal pyrotechnics of Raul Ruiz’s Time Regained. Visual as La Captive is in its rigorously formal compositions, the filmmaker is straightforwardly concerned with language. She filters her Proust through the old nouveau roman of Duras or Robbe-Grillet to fixate on recurring phrases: “au contraire,” “if you like,” “you think so?” Similarly, Akerman takes situations from Proust and elaborately defamiliarizes them. The novel’s brief description of Marcel and Albertine’s adjoining bathrooms occasions a long scene in which the unseen Ariane sings as Simon sits in the tub, instructing her on the precise details of her toilette. (Outrageously, much of the conversation is a deadpan discussion of Ariane’s intimate physiognomy, vaginal secretions, and body odor. “If it weren’t for my allergy and all the pollen you bring in, I almost wish you would never wash,” smitten Simon says wistfully.)

Bedtime is another droll, even more complicated ritual. “Do you want me to come?” Ariane asks, meaning to visit him in his boudoir. “No, not yet,” Simon replies so that he can scurry back to his room and then call Ariane on the phone to invite her in. The rules dictate that they play draughts as a prelude to Simon’s real desire—absolute knowledge of her past and future whereabouts. Then she sleeps, or pretends to, allowing for the only time—literally as well as figuratively—that Simon can have her, even as she eludes him. (His practice of rubbing himself against her unconscious form until he climaxes is also taken from Proust.)

The seething vacuum known as Simon is animated only by his jealousy. As blank and well turned out as a mannequin, the impassive but twitching Merhar gives an extreme Bressonian performance. He watches, he listens, he checks up on Ariane: following strangers in the street, bursting into some soiree and dragging her out. Whatever he does, Ariane is neither angry nor surprised but rather pliant and unreadable. Always obliging, she suggests a machine on perpetual standby. Refusing to acknowledge Simon’s surveillance, she blandly deflects his interrogation. When he demands to know what she’s thinking, she replies, “If I had any thoughts, I’d tell you—but I don’t.”

Like the hero of Memento, Simon is a freelance investigator. Suspecting that Ariane is having an affair with an opera diva (if not the woman he has assigned to watch her), Simon interviews a lesbian couple to see if they can offer any insight. “It’s different,” they tell him. Tormented by Ariane’s absence, he picks up a hooker in the Bois de Boulogne. She may resemble Ariane, but she can’t play her. Her feigned sleep is too feigned. This material is brilliantly suited to the filmmaker’s objective technique. Simon’s passion isn’t so much mad love as it is impossible love.

Few things are more pathological than Simon badgering Ariane to tell him her lies so that he can rewrite the past in terms of “real memories.” The breakup—as dogged and excruciating as everything else—takes its dialogue from Proust but feels like Vertigo once more. Akerman has fashioned a great negative love story, a long stare into the abyss of the night.


Amy Taubin’s reviews of “Rendez-Vous With French Cinema,” Part 1 and Part 2

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World Affairs

Journey to the Sun Life in Istanbul is precarious, even for those whose papers are in order. A sweet young man with a decent job and loving girlfriend loses almost everything when he’s arrested for his skin color. His desperate adventures on the margins continue when he tries to take the body of his best friend, a Kurdish refugee, back to his decimated hometown for burial. A former architect, director Yesim Ustaoglu has a vivid sense of place—the film opens in a teeming city and ends in a devastated rural landscape whose emptiness is truly haunting. March 29 and 30 (Amy Taubin)

Northern Skirts Barbara Albert paints an unsparing picture of life in an Austrian town where men are brutes and women are trapped in dead-end jobs and conflicted about unplanned pregnancies. But the place seems like a mecca to refugees crossing the border from the former Yugoslavia. While the early scenes have a Fassbinder-like toughness, the episodic narrative loses momentum. March 29 and 31 (AT)

Shower Winner of audience awards from Rotterdam to Thessaloniki, Zhang Yang’s second feature uses an old-fashioned Beijing bathhouse as the site for a family reconciliation—will a modern son take his traditional dad’s place alongside a mentally retarded brother? The movie has its quirks but it’s far too soggy for my taste—although an American remake would allow Tom Hanks to play either (or both) of the brothers. Sony Classics plans a summer release. March 30 and April 1 (J. Hoberman)

The Eyes of Tammy Faye Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey’s frothy makeover of televangelism’s raccoon-eyed dowager travels a drag-queenish path—from weepy public disgrace to clenched-teeth triumph—with both blind sympathy and dutiful, winking irony. There are priceless moments, but the breathy RuPaul narration and the hand-puppet chapter headings wear rapidly thin. Lions Gate gives the film a theatrical run in July, but its natural home is the E! channel. March 31 and April 2 (Dennis Lim)

El Medina Wannabe actor leaves Cairo for Paris, gets kicked around, and comes back home. He’s not sure who he is and neither is Yousry Nasrallah’s movie—a not-altogether-uninteresting, sometimes hysterical, hodgepodge of slum melodrama, neorealist tub-thumping, and near-musical entertainment. (That Claire Denis gets a cowriting credit only adds to the mess.) Some scenes were shot on video—perversely, they are the best bits in the movie. April 1 and 2 (JH)

Le Bleu des Villes The protagonist of Stéphane Brizé’s bittersweet first feature is a French provincial meter maid stuck with a dumb morgue-attendant husband. Her disaffection leads to revolt after she bumps into an old schoolmate, now a TV weathergirl in Paris. This modest comedy’s main asset is the restrained lead performance of Florence Vignon, who also coscripted. April 1 and 2 (Elliott Stein)

Two Women Tahmine Milani’s heroine is a brilliant University of Tehran student whose passion for freedom attracts two pathologically possessive men—one a stalker, the other her husband. The film is a no-holds-barred critique of the treatment of women under a reactionary regime. But while one never doubts the truth of the narrative, Milani’s extremely melodramatic style works to her disadvantage. The movie plays Cinema Village in July. April 1 and 2 (AT)

Martin The subject of this hour-long video doc is a self-appointed genius loci—a former POW inmate who haunts the site of the Dachau concentration camp, giving unofficial tours to mainly American sightseers. Shot first-person and filled with unexpected revelations, Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s effectively amateurist film is itself a sort of monument—haunting and cautionary. April 3 and 4 (JH)

Crane World In a rough, relaxed faux-vérité, Argentine director Pablo Trapero chronicles the struggles of a paunchy, middle-aged crane operator, whose fond memories of his distant youth—as a member of a popular rock band—are beginning to feel like taunts. With a resonant, sympathetic performance, Luis Mangani turns this unvarnished character study into an indelible, humbling portrait of decency. April 3 and 4 (DL)