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I Was Bourne, But . . .

Although it didn’t seem obvious at the time of its release, The Bourne Identity (2002) is a quietly remarkable piece of studio-movie sedition. CGI-free, totally focused on the emotional impact of violence, and far less entranced with spectacle than with watching Matt Damon’s eyes make decisions about where the story is going, Doug Liman’s film amounted to a sweaty little anti-blockbuster. Of course, no one knew how to sell it, and so it had to find its redoubtable fan base on video and cable. Truly, Identity‘s palpable tension and sharp sense of resourceful panic still freeze the proverbial channel-racing thumb in mid-click—maybe because it eschews the safe harmlessness of digital F/X.

The sequel (titled by novelist Robert Ludlum with a certain dearth of subtlety and grace) picks up involuntary one-man death squad Jason Bourne (Damon) two years down the road—living with Marie (Franka Potente) off the grid in India, and haunted by incapacitating memory flashes. Around the same time a Russians-in-Berlin payoff run by Bourne’s old black-op agency goes bad (the saboteurs plant Bourne’s fingerprint on an unexploded bomb), another Russian hitman uncovers the happy couple where they live, and Marie takes one in the head for the sake of modus operandi. Thus armed with righteous fury, Bourne kicks back into action and decisively hunts down everybody that’s hunting him.

Director Paul Greengrass, a natural hire after Bloody Sunday, attempts to re-create Liman’s live-wire, low-tech grit, but only occasionally succeeds; too often during fight sequences, you’d swear the cameraman was having a grand mal. Likewise, most of Supremacy is an overedited headache that hardly makes up in frayed nerves what the visuals lack in clarity. The loss of the first film’s hurtling who-am-I? story engine is keenly felt, and too much time is spent observing the characters get on and off planes, trains, and automobiles as they hopscotch from Goa to Naples to Berlin. A harrowing car chase through Moscow that no one would’ve survived helps to alleviate the jet lag. But generally, it’s asking a lot from us to believe that the not-quite-forgotten case that yanks our reluctant hero back into executioner mode just happens to be the same incident giving him imagery seizures.

Superhumanly effective and reflexive, Bourne is an entertaining invention, and Damon supplies him with an engaging anxiety—even if the poor guy is so fearsomely adept that his various nemeses seem like stooges by comparison. (As the big evil boss, Brian Cox gets most of Ludlum’s best dialogue, the dinger of which might be his admonition to Joan Allen’s agency hotshot: “You’re in a big puddle of shit, Pam, and you don’t have the shoes for it.”) Otherwise, search in vain for performances amid the frantic jumble—Allen is given so little to do you begin to examine her oversprayed coif for clues to her character. As franchises go, the Bourne films are pleasantly down-to-earth, and even come armed with a respectable thematic tang. Unlike steaming turnips like Spy Game, The Recruit, and Bad Company, Ludlum’s saga is a prickly portrait of spy obsolescence and the dangerous entropy inherent in covert industries. Everywhere you look, there’s a top-secret scheme going bloodily awry. It may be an old-hat point to make, but it’s still in the headlines.

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Film

Author of the million-copy-selling A People’s History of the United States, 81-year-old Howard Zinn is the activist academic as working-class hero. This affable, craggy professor has an unmistakable voice—he’s the embodiment of Depression consciousness and urban Jewish poverty projected into the social struggles of the ’60s. A onetime longshoreman, Zinn found his first teaching job at Spelman College, a school for black women in Atlanta, and thus was a participant in, as well as a historian of, the civil rights movement. Fired for his activism, Zinn landed at Boston University in 1964, just in time to speak out—and not for the last time—at Boston’s first mass rally against the war in Vietnam. Teaching again merged with political action, most spectacularly when Zinn accompanied Tom Hayden to Hanoi to bring home three released P.O.W.s.

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, which takes its title from Zinn’s recent memoir, provides the historian with a platform to address the Afghan and Iraqi wars. But Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller’s fond portrait, less documentary than infomercial, is unrelentingly and in the end self-defeatingly positive—albeit effective in showcasing Zinn’s charismatic personality. The pop-star ambience is enhanced by Matt Damon’s voice-over narration. Damon not only grew up next door to Zinn in Cambridge but gave A People’s History a mighty plug when he recommended it to his therapist, Robin Williams, in Good Will Hunting: “This will knock you on your ass.”

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Connect the Dolts

Is there a name for what the Farrelly brothers do? Poker-faced genre pastiche, Helen Keller-joke snottiness, absurdist sentimentality, whatever: Although There’s Something About Mary beautifully fused empathy and explosive gaggery, Me, Myself & Irene, Shallow Hal, and now Stuck on You have veered closer to vintage Surrealist narratives, often forfeiting guffaws for freaky juxtapositions and pushing their madcap concepts beyond humor and into an odd sort of metaphoric resonance. Stuck on You is a comedy about conjoined twins, played by the preposterously unidentical Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear, and saying it’s a one-joke scenario is inadequate; Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers may well be a funnier film. But there’s a daft sweetness and inclusiveness at work that sustains the Farrelly movie long after the notion of attached brothers boxing or quarterbacking or manning a burger joint’s kitchen fails to stir the chuckle meter.

Of course, conjoined twins (or Irene‘s schizophrenia, or Hal‘s misogyny and obesity-phobia) are not inherently funny. The Farrellys conscientiously mold socially loaded material into feel-good gadgets we want to take home, however horny, tactless, or vomit-flecked they may be. Zany as the movie is, laugh-getting is a secondary ambition. Old Warner Bros. cartoons were often unfunny—the Road Runner, Porky Pig, the skit-shorts surveying zoo animals or sports or books—but their invention and high spirits still dazzle. The Farrellys toil in the same fun house, and Stuck comes off mostly as a tale, or mock-tale, or mock-mock-tale, of optimism, triumph, and (gulp) attachment.

At the outset, Bob and Walt Tenor are integral figures in their Martha’s Vineyard village, and always have been—the flashbacks include moments of athletic glory (they make an unbeatable hockey goalie) and the brothers’ senior prom, where they were crowned twin kings. Native Rhode Islanders, the Farrellys adore warm, makeshift New England communities—as do the Tenors, until ladies’ man Walt (Kinnear) tries his hand at acting in Hollywood. Ensconced in a cheesy motel, the pair audition to disbelieving industry cretins and eventually meet Cher (Cher, as monstrous and synthetic as you’d imagine), who casts Walt (not Damon’s bashful Bob) on a TV show she’d like to see crash and burn. Naturally, it’s a hit, despite Bob’s face constantly intruding into the frame besides Walt’s.

The showbiz satire is low-boiling; Cher lambastes herself but still seems barely human, while Griffin Dunne, also as himself, registers sharply enough to initiate a mourning period for his abbreviated acting career. As an antiquated agent in a motorized wheelchair, Seymour Cassel scores easy birdies. But the central symbol of helpless adhesion holds. Every consideration of conjoinedness eventually leads to the charged idea of separation, and that’s when Stuck on You becomes very nearly poetic. In fact, the final eighth’s genuine hilarity derives its amperage from plain old brotherly love. (Old home movies are a sucker punch I take in the kidneys every time.) Damon and Kinnear are both pitch-perfect, inhabiting their ingenuous, codependent little universe together with the commitment of eight-year-old best friends. True to form, the Farrellys toss sophomoric spitballs at us, but nothing stems the rise of big-hearted generosity.

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Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and a Little Bit of Bloodletting

Close friendships are brutal. Add intense collaboration and somebody’s nose is likely to get broken. This very misfortune befell Brenda Withers last Friday during the 7:30 performance of Matt and Ben, a hit from last year’s Fringe Festival in which two female writer-actors, jaunty Withers and charismatic Mindy Kaling, imagine the process that resulted in Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s Good Will Hunting. Here, that “process” involves a script literally falling from the ceiling into the hands of the boys, who abandon adapting Catcher in the Rye to wrangle over this otherwordly ticket out of the School Ties backwater. When frat-ified jabs escalate to fracas, a roundhouse is delivered Matt-ward. On Friday, that punch connected, sending Withers to the ER. Withers returned on Saturday, playing though the pain to uproarious effect.

Since its 2002 debut, the real Affleck has done Daredevil and two flicks with J.Lo. Damon has detoured from superhero-dom, jumping from The Bourne Identity to Gerry, a Godot-ish Gus Van Sant desert ramble. While Matt-Ben divergence might seem threatening to the relevance of this spoof, it’s actually made its personality theories all the more intriguing.

With David Warren’s direction tightening the comic timing, Withers’s portrait of Damon as fussy careerist hits hard from go. Oxford-clad Matt sternly teaches sweatsuited Ben his art (“Put your eyes on my eyes! Your eyes—my eyes!”) But Kaling’s Ben is a golden-flow stitch. A flashback to a school talent show reveals Matt strumming Simon and Garfunkel as Ben throws gang signs, freestyles, and pronounces the whole thing “gay and retarded.” Matt and Ben’s lampoons, however harsh, are affectionate, and one imagines this script falling into Kaling and Withers’s laps just as Hunting coyly availed itself to its Matt and Ben’s pre-Greenlight auteurs. And the creative struggles, excepting maybe that knuckle sandwich, have an energy that only comes from experience.

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The Searchers

Harold Rosenberg imagined a work of modern art as an “anxious object,” unsure whether it was “a masterpiece or a piece of junk.” Gus Van Sant’s new film, Gerry, is an anxious movie-object that might well wonder whether its minimalist aspiration is a matter of ambitious purity or empty pretense.

The dreamy opening is designed to prank audience expectations. For six minutes or so, the two principals, Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, drive along an otherwise unpopulated highway somewhere out West. The background music is serene, the light drops like liquid honey on the dirty windshield, and despite a few reverse-angle shots, the movement is soothingly continuous. Then the guys park in the middle of nowhere, get out of the car, and start walking. It’s another several minutes before either of them speaks—and somewhat longer before their banter is intelligible. Then, they find the “trail.”

The audience never really sees this alleged path: It’s a virtual trail, created by the moving camera. Gerry too is a virtual film, which is to say, it’s a movie about appearing in a movie, with a narrative based on making up a narrative. The purposefully inane dialogue was largely improvised by the actors, who both play characters named Gerry (and use “gerry” as their all-purpose word, the way the Frank Sinatra Rat Pack used to deploy the term “clyde”). Suspense is a given. There is, Damon assures Affleck, a “thing” at the end of the trail—it’s called the end of the movie.

Mystically attuned to audience mood, Damon and Affleck presently grow tired. Then the fog rolls in and the two Gerrys realize that they are lost. It was at this moment, when I first saw Gerry in Toronto last year, that individual members of the audience began a slow but constant exodus from the theater. (Spoiler alert: The deserters missed an ever deeper journey into the photogenic wilderness, an ever more quarrelsome relationship between the actors, and a dull ache of dramatic tension and its absence. There is a moment when one Gerry gets stuck atop a rock. After a while, he jumps . . . unexpectedly, leaving you to wonder if there will ever be another event.)

For all the mounting hysteria, the Gerrys mainly seem lost in the space between their ears. Still the romping pup, Damon brings the confidence of a proven matinee idol to his character. Affleck is more tentative and whining. He’s obviously less of a box-office draw than Damon, so in one comic-book touch, Van Sant has him wear a shirt with a big yellow star. Trapped in their Boys’ Life Beckett scenario, the Gerrys make their way through a tricksy montage of scrubby woods, rocky deserts, misty mountains, and parched salt flats.

Meanwhile, the repetitive situations and languid pacing allow ample time to find analogies—from L’Avventura to The Blair Witch Project to every survival drama ever made. At best, Gerry is a live-action version of the Chuck Jones cartoon Duck Amuck, in which the backdrop keeps shifting and hapless Daffy is subject to the whims of an unfathomable creator. There’s no direct address, but toward the end, Gerry‘s coy references to the presumably watching audience become increasingly apparent: “How do you like the hike so far?” one Gerry wonders.

Such smug self-consciousness suggests Michael Haneke’s loathsome anti-thriller Funny Games, except that here the audience-directed aggression is largely passive—which is why, although Gerry may be as hollow as George Bush’s rhetoric, I can’t say I found it a more difficult movie to sit through than Good Will Hunting. (This is something like Bad Willful Punting.) Even more than Steven Soderbergh, Van Sant deserves props for an unusual career. But, as Karl Marx warned us and Gerry also suggests, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Only superficially more experimental than Van Sant’s shot-by-shot remake of Psycho, Gerry may be, as the filmmaker suggests, a tribute to Béla Tarr’s use of real time in Sátántangó, but if so, it’s only a tepid approximation.

Exercise in existential tedium that it is, Gerry isn’t without devotees. In a recent issue of Artforum, John Waters declared his allegiance in the most basic terms, admonishing his readers, “Don’t sleep with anybody who doesn’t love this film.” Gerry is an undeniable curiosity, but to follow this advice, perverse even by Waters standards, may mean taking a de facto vow of celibacy.


Indie director David Gordon Green’s first feature, George Washington, was another anxious object. Green’s haphazardly lyrical, heavily symbolic account of a tragic incident involving a group of kids on the outskirts of a small Southern city seemed at once brilliant and inept. It was difficult to imagine what he might do for an encore, but All the Real Girls—opening fresh from Sundance—demonstrates that, tonally at least, George Washington was no fluke.

Alternately poignant and ridiculous, opaque and garrulous, All the Real Girls recapitulates its predecessor’s taste for absurd gravitas and useless beauty. Essentially a two-hander, set in a North Carolina mill town, it tracks the unhappy romance between a teenage girl and a somewhat older boy. They’re introduced staring at each other. “What are you looking at?” Paul (Paul Schneider) demands. (Since he developed the story with Green, he really ought to know.) Archly, Noel (Zooey Deschanel) asks why he never kissed her. Paul ponders the question and the long, static take continues. Later, Noel will tell him, “I had a dream that you grew a garden on a trampoline and I was so happy I invented peanut butter.”

The generally adorable Deschanel gives Noel an impish pre-sexual innocence. This cute and perky li’l fox even plays the trombone. The less expressive and generally unreadable Schneider is supposed to be the town stud. (“You go down in every girl’s history book as the asshole ex-boyfriend,” a buddy tells him.) His seeming depression is compounded by a number of scenes with his mother (Patricia Clarkson), who entertains sick children at the hospital and frequently wears her clown getup around the house. Noel wants to give her virginal self to Paul. He’s freaked out by her trust—plus, she’s the kid sister of his best friend (Shea Whigham), another layabout who sports the highest pompadour in town. Paul and Noel go to bed several times, but he’d rather wait—with predictable results.

This earnest love story is borderline insufferable, and yet there are moments that, in their bold incoherence, have a startling emotional truth. Midway through, the star-crossed couple throw a mutual tantrum, which continues to resonate long after the movie ends. With its stunning Smoky Mountain vistas and sunset landscapes, All the Real Girls is often as gorgeous as Gerry and nearly as dumb—the difference is that Gerry is, heh-heh, really “dumb” and here you never know. Green manages to suggest true unhappiness in a peaceable kingdom where retarded children speak in folk poetry and a crippled dog is surely the reincarnation of an ancient sage. The final shot of the town’s upside-down reflection could break your heart.


The docu-discovery of last year’s Slamdance Film Festival, Mark Moskowitz’s Stone Reader has received much pre-release publicity, as well it might. For writers, the premise is irresistible. The filmmaker goes searching for the one-book author of a virtually unknown, long-out-of-print, 600-page novel, which he alone seems to have read. Indeed, Moskowitz insures his solitary mission by purchasing every copy he can find of Dow Mossman’s 1972 The Stones of Summer. (He’s not a bibliophile—he’s a reader of remarkable devotion.)

Moskowitz, whose day job is making political commercials for the Democratic Party, spends a year pursuing Mossman, following cold leads, grasping at straws, and entertaining the viewer by consulting literary wise men ranging from Professor Leslie Fiedler to editor Robert Gottlieb to The Stones of Summer‘s lone reviewer. This hunt is nearly as much a man’s world as Moby-Dick. (Stone Reader is strikingly homosocial: Mrs. Moskowitz will not permit herself to be filmed, and the filmmaker’s mother aside, women barely speak.) Flaubert’s ideal novelist is one who disappears behind the work; Moskowitz is a filmmaker who places himself front and center, but without vanity. Stone Reader doesn’t make a case for The Stones of Summer as a great novel—from what can be gleaned, Mossman’s book may be yet another anxious object, oscillating between compulsive overwriting and convulsive over-reaching—but Moskowitz does convince the viewer of his own obsession. What’s more, he turns it into a great literary mystery.

As filmmaking, Stone Reader can be rough-hewn and sometimes crass, but Moskowitz’s self-imposed mission is moving in a way that completely eluded the Masterpiece Theatrics of Neil LaBute’s genteel Possession. “You’re way past an ideal reader—you’re in another dimension,” the object of Moskowitz’s quest tells him. Amen. I’ve never seen a movie that paid more heartfelt tribute to the power of artistic invention.



Related Articles:

The Desert of the Real: Gus Van Sant Gerry-Rigs the Road Movie” by Ed Halter


J. Hoberman’s review of David Gordon Green’s George Washington

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The Desert of the Real

Gus Van Sant’s films have long featured dusty Western highways; lonely blacktop receding into the scrubby horizon is one of his long-standing visual signatures. An infatuated gringo joyrides through Portland’s outskirts with his Mexican crush in Van Sant’s first feature, Mala Noche (1985). In My Own Private Idaho (1991), a symbolic shot of a house crashing onto a highway stands in for River Phoenix’s crushing despair, and the director revisited Norman Bates’s off-route motel for Psycho (1998). Recently part of MOMA’s Van Sant series, the seldom-seen short Four Boys in a Volvo (1996) basks in road-trip iconography. Originally shot as an advertisement for Lev’s, it features a collection of shirtless lads meandering through golden landscapes, stopping their car at dusk to watch the sun set.

Gerry, Van Sant’s newest feature, similarly opens with two boys in a Mercedes. A soothingly hypnotic introductory sequence shows Casey Affleck and Matt Damon driving down yet another stretch of highway, set to a gentle piano composition by Arvo Pärt. After stopping, they hike down a wilderness trail, but soon lose their way. The bulk of the movie concerns their near biblical wanderings in the desert, told in long, unbroken, often wordless takes. Not only an elaborate distension of one of Van Sant’s personal motifs, it’s also an experimental twist on a deeply American form. Gerry is a road movie that has wandered off the road.

“I always wanted to do a story in the desert,” Van Sant explains. On the phone from his home in Portland, his voice is mellow and unhurried, punctuated by brief pauses. “Here in Oregon, if you go east, you just hit a huge desert. It’s the same one that’s connected to Texas, this big desert region. In the West, as soon as you get out of town, depending on which direction you go, you can hit desert, especially in L.A. I mean, L.A. is really a desert anyway.”

Van Sant himself has recently sojourned in the deserts of L.A. Since To Die For (1995), he’s directed a series of Hollywood features, including the Oscar-friendly Good Will Hunting (1997), his Psycho remake, and the critically lambasted Finding Forrester (2000). It was during the production of this last feature that Van Sant and friend Casey Affleck, who began working with him as an actor in To Die For, began to think about working on a project that would take them far off Hollywood’s beaten path.

“When Gus was getting ready to do Finding Forrester,” says Affleck, “part of the research was to watch loads of movies from the ’70s, you know, to get a look. Being a friend of Gus’s and not doing much at the time, I watched them with him.” Van Sant eventually brought Affleck to the production to do some on-set editing as they shot. In preparation, Affleck read editor Walter Murch’s book In the Blink of an Eye, recommended to him by Matt Damon. Murch had been the editor on The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), which Damon starred in. “It was about why movies have so many cuts, and what editing does to movies and to the audience,” Affleck recalls. “How people become accustomed to connecting the dots between images.” During this time, Van Sant gave Affleck and Damon an eye-opening crash course in modern European art cinema. Together, they studied the works of Andrei Tarkovsky, Béla Tarr, and, eventually, Chantal Akerman.

Studying this alternate world was not merely an exercise in stylistics for Van Sant. “There are a lot of examples of movies that come from a different mind-set from what we are used to dealing with,” he says “There’s a way that the industry pushed away the things that were originally illuminating discoveries, sometime in the mid teens.” Innovations by D.W. Griffith and others meant that “the filmmaker could all of a sudden describe his story by a certain use of a film grammar being developed at the time—medium-shot, close-up, over-the-shoulder, cutaway shots—that would describe things that the characters were thinking or feeling. Which also enabled the industry itself, the guys in the front office, to market a product in the same way that Henry Ford was building and marketing his automobiles. And that product itself was a regurgitation of previous storytelling from the 1800s that was not necessarily film itself. It was more like rehashing a different medium, like literature and theater. But then some of these other filmmakers, I feel, have gotten outside of that.”

Affleck too began to take in new ideas about film form. “Murch wrote that people in the future will probably look at movies today like we look at Egyptian art. In a lot of those Egyptian drawings, each of their limbs is shown from the best angle, even though it’s not naturally the way a body could ever be. That’s the way that movies are cut now—showing you what to look at and from which angle. It just seems natural to us.”






Damon and Affleck in Gerry
(THINKfilm)

Months later, these mental peregrinations through Hollywood’s antipodes developed into plans for Van Sant, Affleck, and Damon to collaborate on an independent project. “We were all sitting around talking about how we wanted to just run off and make a movie ourselves with no interference,” says Damon. Gus and I had been having this kind of ongoing conversation about certain shots in movies, like Béla Tarr movies, that can take a really long time. So we were having this whole conversation about how you can’t make a movie like that if it’s expensive, and Gus was saying, ‘Well, I made Mala Noche with three people.’ ”

Inspired by a recent news item Affleck and Damon heard second-hand about two young men who became lost in an American wilderness, the two started working on a new screenplay that would become Gerry. “We thought it just seemed both kind of mysterious and ludicrous all at the same time,” says Affleck. “And also the idea that you can get lost in America anywhere these days. It seems sort of unbelievable to us that there are still places that you could be lost for four days.”

In the summer of 2001, the group began shooting in the deserts of Argentina. They later switched to Death Valley and, finally, the bone-white salt flats of Utah. The characters’ dialogue, which sounds like the semi-absurd secret-slang patter of two longtime friends, was sometimes improvised. Many takes were shot first with dialogue, then again without. Some of the wordless takes became the most expressive moments in the film, like a single seven-minute shot of the two, worn from a day of relentless misery, trudging silently nowhere.

Though not to the extent of Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie or Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, Gerry too became an exercise in grueling, self-reflexive filmmaking, beneath a blistering 120-degree sun. “We were shooting a story,” says Van Sant, “but we’re actually going through the same process, because we’ve actually thrown ourselves into the desert, and it’s really hot, and we also haven’t really given ourselves a specific shot list, or a specific script. So, thematically, while we’re in the desert, making a film about these characters who are in the desert, we’re also sort of thrown into a certain type of artistic desert.”



Related Articles:


J. Hoberman’s review of Gerry


From Rent Boys to Weathergirls: Gus Van Sant, the Early Films” by Ed Halter

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Deviants and Damons

Squirming in the heat of a sweltering theater, awaiting another lukewarm show, a colleague asks, “Have you seen the box office totals for the first day of the Fringe?” With resignation and a little disdain, he reveals that the New York International Fringe Festival has amassed over $100,000 in advance ticket sales—a fairly staggering amount for the low-rent event, nearly three times greater than last year’s number. He shook his head and said, “The Fringe is dead.”

With the Fringe-begot Urinetown!‘s three Tony awards, numerous off-Broadway transfers, and the newfound moneymaking, it’s tempting to accuse the Fringe of having sloughed off its skin of indie cred, of having all the edge of a pâté knife. Gone are the days of artistic ambition and groundbreaking theatrics. Now it functions as industry showcase and launching pad—or so the story goes.

But having attended five of the Fringe’s six festivals and covered three, I’m confident that each year never boasted more than a handful of risky, “fringey” works. Judging from the 20 or so plays witnessed this year, while a few entries do display some distressingly canned professionalism or reactionary ideology, most are as scrappy and spontaneous and, well, shitty as in Fringes past. With its grand scale—nearly 200 shows performed over 17 days in 20 venues—the festival guarantees a muddle of daring and complacency. It also guarantees small companies a chance to find an audience, and not just any audience, but one comprised primarily of 18-to-35-year-olds—a great rarity in New York theater circles—with decades of theater-going ahead of them.

This edition boasts the typical array of one-person shows and small-cast musicals, revamped classics and playwriting debuts, unfunny comedy and irreverent drama. Surprisingly, if not unhappily, September 11 makes itself little felt (though the afterglow of civic pride may have something to do with the high ticket sales). In fact, few general themes emerge, save some plays detailing corporate avarice and the plight of wage laborers (people in the theater will always have day jobs), as well as the usual complement of violence- or sex-based pieces.

Titillation has its uses, and a show managing to combine both sex and violence beat out the competition. In the autobiographical Spanked!, real-life boyfriends Ian MacKinnon and Aaron Hartzler trace how the terrors of childhood paddlings metamorphosed into a pleasurable adult activity. The young men have ingested too many self-help books (a pall of pop psychology clings to the production, most notably in references to “the light of my gay soul”), but they are candid and likable performers, well-served by director Jacob Titus, though he might have insisted on some editing—the emphasis is definitely on bikini rather than brief. And for the more sheltered spectator (self very much included) the spanking demonstration is indeed—as Hartzler wryly notes—worth the cost of admission. That demonstration is brave—as is the wearing of leopard-print “man panties” while crooning “Love Hurts”—but braver still are the moments in which the men admit failure in reconciling themselves with their pasts or their own discomfort with the material.

Discomfort with the material is the comic seed for Resa Fantastiskt Mystisk, an ostensible masterwork by underappreciated Strindberg contemporary and goose herder Lars Mattsun. As the director Todd Merrill explains in his anxious curtain speech, the play is a masterful parable of artistic creation and he’s tremendously concerned that the audience “get” it. To facilitate, he’s distributed wireless headsets so that he can provide guidance and clarification. A dead-on parody of DVD commentary tracks, Merrill recites lines along with actors, grows snippy when a scene goes awry, and offers insipid nuggets such as “Here Philip retreats within himself.” The play ought to have retreated from its 90-minute run time, as one joke, however amusing, is still one joke.

Here’s another joke: What if the script for Good Will Hunting fell—quite literally and mysteriously—into the laps of pre-fame Matt Damon and Ben Affleck? In Matt and Ben, as conceived and performed by Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers, the phenomenon occasions a rift and retrenchment in the now legendary friendship. Kaling and Withers might have better mimicked the hunks’ speech patterns and gestural vocabulary, but they attempt their roles with gusto and requisite cockiness—as Affleck notes, “We’re white, we’re handsome, we’re American, we were in School Ties.” Unlike many of Damon and Affleck’s subsequent projects, Matt and Ben has an affectionate eccentricity—particularly dream sequences involving Gwyneth Paltrow and J.D. Salinger—that excuses much of the imprecision and plotlessness.

As in every festival, there are certain projects nothing could excuse (OK, maybe vast amounts of money slid through the ticket window to me). Death in the City has the clever premise of improvising a show based on information from the day’s obituaries. But the performance reviewed, a tribute to the life of Vietnamese dissident Tran Do, found the actors incapable of establishing chronology or character, nor could they decide whether or not Tran was the surname—effectively, a Tran don’t. In Assorted States and Clean Living, Blindspot demonstrates a similar level of improvisatory incompetence, though they fare slightly better in the sketch-comedy portion of their show, especially a bit featuring renegade stewardesses. A Night of Shitty Theatre more or less lives up to its name (it was an afternoon, technically), although the intentionally awful scenes scripted by Joe Wack might have been hilarious had they not been performed with such insufferable knowing. Altogether unknowing was the dance-theater piece Stalking Christopher Walken, which made the logical snafu, “Hey, Christopher Walken is weird, so if we put in a lot of other weird stuff, like St. Marks aliens and descending bananas, well, that should work.” Makes you want to tell them to put a stalk in it.

Another—more successful—form of hero worship arrives in the form of Beat, writer-director Kelly Groves’s mash note to Allen Ginsberg. This piece of documentary theater—centered around the Howl obscenity trial—offers clever editing, energetic performances, and polished staging, but takes its subjects far too reverently. How can you hold a mirror up to nature when you’ve made it all steamy? Like several Beat anthologies, the play also pretends women were absent, a fault Gregg Tomé’s one-man show Babylon, Long Island shares. Recalling suburban teendom, Tomé performs a coterie of 1970s stoners and slackers with some aplomb, but the repetitiveness of the monologues and the oddly moralistic ending don’t make Babylon captivate.

More captivating, as far as one-person shows are concerned, is Tonya Canada’s aptly-named It’s All About Me. Recounting a term as a Portland Rose Princess, employment at a menacing law office, and a disappointing date with Robert De Niro, the insouciant Canada wears her egotism as well as her miniskirt. Patrick Tull doesn’t wear miniskirts (as he’s a burly 61-year-old this is no hardship), but still commands attention in The Hero of the Slocum, a record of a 1904 inland waterway disaster. Though somewhat static, it does provide an engaging narrative and proves that corporate greed isn’t a contemporary invention. Downsized explores a similar topic—here the greed is made manifest in the 500 pizzas a beleaguered boss orders as he forces two underlings to pass the night with him.

The two young men who pass the night in Christopher Shinn’s onanistic The Sleepers are just jerking around in comparison to the two white-garbed women of the one-act they’re paired with, David Greenspan’s extraordinary Five Frozen Embryos. Greenspan confirms his talent for the deceptively simple and artlessly devastating as the women graciously quibble over syntax and language as they reconstruct a court decision barring a woman from impregnating herself with embryos fertilized by her ex-husband.

In the “boy band pop musical” All American Boy, a Svengali named Sven Gali attempts to bring an embryonic boy band to term despite myriad scandals and gay romances. Though the ultra-asinine lyrics (“Love you like you love me when you love me like you like me”) do provoke an occasional titter, the book wants rewriting and many of the roles recasting with performers who can actually dance and sing (Kellie Overbey providing a welcome exception). All the performers of the revue The Joys of Sex have the requisite chops, but neither they nor Jeremy Dobrish’s brisk direction can rescue the piece from its bourgeois smarm. It pretends to celebrate kinkiness and candor before insisting that only the married, heterosexual, baby-making paradigm really gets you off. In Sophie Rand’s uneven and earnest Deviant, however, it’s insect squishing, doll humping, amputees, aliens, and the vegetable drawer that provide the turn-ons.

As any catalog of extreme sexual practices suggests, there is satisfaction to be found in unexpected places. And even if few shows in this year’s Fringe proved entirely gratifying, many were not without attractive aspects: a breath of innovation, a breeze of genuine comedy, the feel of the air conditioner before the crowds have made it ineffectual, the discovery that the deli around the corner carries the energy cookie you’re infatuated with. If the Fringe is dead, long live the Fringe.

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Swing the Body Electric

In the current issue of Film Comment, Harmony Korine names Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore “the greatest movie about love.” It’s easy to see how Korine would identify with Alexander (Jean-Pierre Léaud), the film’s fragile, romantic, passive-aggressive, logorrheic protagonist, whose flood of fantasized selves and others could not drown his fear of sex, death, and the end of cinema.

Made in 1972, this fairly autobiographical work (shot in the director’s own apartment) is full of à clef references to New Wave directors with whom Eustache felt bitterly competitive, and grounded in the malaise that followed May ’68. But it also shares and bares the anxiety about masculinity that fuels American films of the ’70s from Carnal Knowledge to Taxi Driver, not to mention John Cassavetes’s oeuvre—an anxiety exacerbated by the so-called sexual-liberation movement and the subsequent rise of feminist consciousness. It’s no accident that during the first conversation Alexander has with Veronika (Françoise Lebrun)—the young nurse whom he tries to entice into a ménage à trois with Marie (Bernadette Lafont), his older, richer live-in girlfriend—he makes a disparaging remark about women’s lib. Veronika claims to know nothing about it, although her final drunken monologue, in which she rages against being identified as a whore by men terrified of her sexuality, shows that she’s not as naive as she seems.

Three and a half hours long, The Mother and the Whore is both epic and intimate, ethnographic in its cultural detail and subjective in its exposure of the raw nerves of body and psyche. It’s Eustache’s greatest cinematic achievement, though not his only significant one, as this near complete retrospective proves. Included is the 1966 short feature Santa Claus Has Blue Eyes (which stars Léaud as a young man tired of being stuck in a small town who takes an embarrassing job so that he can buy the coat that everyone in Paris is wearing) and the deadpan documentary La Rosière de Pessac, for which Eustache returned to his birthplace in 1968 and again in 1979 to record the annual selection of the “most virtuous girl in town.” Not to be missed is the 47-minute Une Sale Histoire, in which Jean Noel-Picq (Eustache’s friend and occasional screenwriting collaborator) confesses to a voyeuristic compulsion so humiliating and ridiculous it provokes both pity and laughter—and Mes Petites Amoureuses, the feature Eustache made immediately after The Mother and the Whore.

The film embodies his perverse refusal to capitalize on success. Abandoning Paris bohemia, Eustache returned to the two small working-class towns where he grew up to make a memory piece about a 12-year-old’s first sexual explorations and his painful discovery that the adults who have the most power over him do not have his best interests at heart. Lyrically photographed by Néstor Almendros, and wonderfully acted by Martin Loeb (who plays Daniel, Eustache’s childhood alter ego) and several other adolescent performers, Mes Petites Amoureuses lovingly details rituals of courtship and friendship. Daniel is a budding film buff, an unusually self-contained boy with observing eyes that give almost nothing of himself away. In one achingly precise scene, Daniel turns his attention from the screen (the film is that Cahiers du Cinéma favorite Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, starring Ava Gardner) to the kids near him who are engaged in a solemn ritual that involves a boy leaning into the next row and kissing the girl in front of him. Having observed a few of these intense, impersonal embraces, Daniel tries out the procedure himself. The most subtle of eye-openers, Mes Petites Amoureuses is a far more rigorous coming-of-age film than The 400 Blows. Eustache, who committed suicide in 1981, never achieved the recognition he deserved during his lifetime, but his films, which have hardly dated, have influenced French directors from Arnaud Desplechin to Claire Denis and Americans from Jim Jarmusch to Korine.


A lovely-looking fairy tale of a movie in which almost every scene is washed with pink-gold light, Robert Redford’s The Legend of Bagger Vance is easy to mock. You could start with the fact that its stars—Will Smith, Matt Damon, and Charlize Theron—all have conspicuously pug noses and exceptionally large, white teeth. You might mention that it’s conveniently set at the beginning of the Great Depression—before people were forced to sell off their clothes and before poverty put lines on their faces. You might also note that although the location is Savannah, a city where everyone seems to wake up humming “Dixie,” the N-word never crosses a single pair of lips. And it might occur to you that World War I and the Depression are treated as natural disasters, rather than as political and social events in which human agency played a part. In other words, you would need to suspend everything except wishful thinking to fall under the spell of this movie, which uses golf as a metaphor for life and provides a basic lesson in finding your authentic swing.

Once a teenage golfer of great promise, Rannulph Junuh (Damon) returns from the war burdened with the guilt of being the only survivor in his squadron. Junuh lives like a recluse until he’s pressured to represent Savannah in a tournament that his former fiancée, Adele Invergordon (Theron), has organized to save her late father’s golf resort from being taken over by the bank. Junuh is about to refuse when out of the woods one moonlit night comes Bagger Vance, a black man with a small suitcase, a rakishly cocked, big-brimmed hat, and a prodigious knowledge of the game. Bagger drops some hints about how they must find the swing Junuh has lost, and, suddenly, the space before Junuh’s eyes seems to shift as if it were being simultaneously stretched and squeezed and every blade of grass were illuminated from within and every cricket had its own amplifier. Junuh takes a swing, and while it’s not perfect, it’s so much closer to what it was in the days before he became plagued by “should’ves and would’ves” that he commits to playing in the match with Bagger as his caddie. The last 40 minutes unfold on the golf course, where Junuh conquers first his fear of failure and then his smug overconfidence to reach the place where “you can play the game that only you were born to play and that was given to you when you came into the world.”

Smith delivers such inspirational nuggets with a casual grace that makes them less embarrassing than they appear on the page. Indeed, this is a film filled with graceful performances, graceful camerawork, graceful art direction, graceful sound design, and graceful everything else. It’s also something of a personal film, because Damon’s vocal delivery and physical mannerisms—not to mention his blue eyes and golden hair—are so reminiscent of Redford, and because it references half a dozen Redford films from The Natural to The Great Gatsby to The Horse Whisperer. I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit to being choked up by the way the light filtered through the trees in conjunction with all that talk about the mystery of the creative process. But for the most part, The Legend of Bagger Vance is more mushy than mystical. Redford’s authentic swing has a harder edge. It takes material like Ordinary People or Quiz Show to bring it to the fore.

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NY Mirror

Ten years ago, ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ might have had queers in the street, screaming ‘Not another gay sociopath!’ Today, the gay press has validated the movie as a penetrating study in intimacy problems—and really hot to boot. In a gushy ‘Advocate’ cover story on Matt Damon, the magazine presents the flick as both a homoerotic feast for the senses and a sensitive take on the gay experience (though the thought- provoking piece does address the stereotyping issues and also points out that Ripley can’t be intimate with either sex—not that he seems to want to be with women). In between comforting Damon because gay rumors have “disparaged” his relationship with Ben Affleck, the Advocate reporter says that, by adding a boyfriend for Ripley and enhancing the material’s gay subtext, director-adapter Anthony Minghella actually makes the character more human and the film “more resonant for a contemporary audience” (even if, as the writer admits, that opens the door to controversy). So we should thank Minghella for giving us a gay killer?

Absolutely, the movie’s defenders say, because it provides a deft comment on panic, oppression, and self-loathing. Well, while all this hoopla has opened my faggy eyes, the gay media’s unmitigated lust for the movie—a response which Miramax must be creaming over—could arguably be another form of panic, oppression, and self-loathing. We’re all practically throwing parades proclaiming that we’re so happy to have this lovable gay nut on our screens—and while we’re at it, maybe we should give The Silence of the Lambs a retroactive GLAAD award.

As sleekly and hypnotically made as Ripley is, why should we be so thrilled with the premise that it’s so angsty to be a status-challenged gay—and yes, I know the film’s set in the ’50s—that an aggressively striving twerp would turn cuckoo-deadly about it? (And don’t start naming real-life instances—a movie about Cunanan would not be hailed as a gay breakthrough.) Of course this scenario could and does happen, but not anywhere near as often as it does at the local cineplex! Besides, the self-loathing angle might make more sense if, like the right-winger in American Beauty, Ripley went over the edge specifically because he’s tortured about his sexuality. But while this Oprah-style Ripley does dislike everything that makes him different, he turns to violence when his advances are spurned by his cute crush (played by Jude Law). He’s a dewy-eyed predator who simply doesn’t get the wealthy, charismatic love interest and lifestyle he wants. This might hint at being a comment on closety disturbance—Ripley’s been found out and rejected—but mostly it just leaves you feeling the guy’s a twisted sister, another in Hollywood’s long line of queens so put upon that they become the oppressors, brazenly disrupting lives and even ending them to suit their neurotic needs. (Sure, I do cover some homo murderers and their victims myself, but I also manage to throw in thousands of types in between.)

Interestingly, a writeup in the gay weekly New York Blade News lionized the movie too, but not necessarily because it’s a comment on queerdom. They’re happy that the flick excised the homophobic epithets leveled at the character in the book, and that now “Ripley’s pathology is no longer connected to his sexuality.” So he’s a killer who just happens to be gay? Is that better than the kind who’s acting out his sexual self-loathing? Gee, I can’t decide, so I guess I’ll just have to kill you! (But by the way, isn’t Damon dreamy—and after all, the character’s such a doll because it’s not like he premeditated that murder or anything, right?)

Lest anyone think I’m second-guessing The Advocate because I contribute to Out, let me confess that I did notice when the latter publication praised the talented Mr. Alan Cumming for announcing himself as pansexual, and suggested that Cumming’s “refusal to be bound by one orientation may be what allows him to play sexuality in so many different keys.” So an actor might display a wider range if he could only be bi or maybe vague instead of just plain gay? Gee, listen up, Rupert Everett!

A few issues ago, The Advocate—no, I won’t shut up—featured a whole other conversation piece: Will & Grace costar Megan Mullally‘s declaration that she’s sort of bisexual (a bit of a shock since we were all busy looking to other folks on the show to come out). Well, since then, there’s been a hurricane of cover-ups designed to bind Mullally to one orientation—namely, hetero. A tabloid promptly quoted people saying Mullally’s the straightest person imaginable and juggles men like crazy, and then an interview with the actress in one of the dailies didn’t even mention her sexuality revelation, though it did quote her saying, “I’m really ‘out’ about my age.” Do you bi all this?

Moving on to more concrete announcements—and lighter notes—I’m totally out about the fact that the Broadway production of Waiting in the Wings has its goofy charms, even if, just as the recently exhumed Sail Away seemed to be Noël Coward’s Love Boat, this is definitely his Golden Girls. During the intermission the night I saw it, TV legend Joe Franklin exclaimed, “I love it! I love it!” then thought about it and said, “Fair! Fair!”

There was a mad crush at the Any Given Sunday premiere party at the appropriately named Exit—unfair, unfair—where one of those power-mad doormen was screaming at the attendant throng to back up “or no one’s getting in!” (That sounded OK to me.) Even poor Roshumba was being urged away from the entrance and almost manhandled by this freak. (“She was about to say, ‘I charge extra for that,’ ” her publicist told me later.) An event-flack saved the day for Roshumba, but with no such lifeline offered, I went home to put a piece of cheese in my butt and see who comes first, Stuart Little or Mr. Jingles. (Hey, am I dysfunctional enough for Matt Damon to play me in a movie?)

This might be the right time to reveal that in the upcoming flick Black and White, Robert Downey Jr. portrays a late-blooming guy who realizes, “I am a cum guzzler!” Moving right along, swallow this: In his new show, Much Ado About Everything, Jackie Mason refers to Siegfried and Roy as “two fageles and a tiger—and the tiger’s a fagele too.” And he disappears even faster than Stuart Little or Mr. Jingles.

Meanwhile, tigress-scandal gal Roxanne Pulitzer—who’s going to be a grandmother—called in the middle of her fourth messy divorce to promise me she’ll never get married again. The prize Pulitzer added that if she does ever plan to sashay back down the aisle, I should race to Palm Beach and strap her to the bed. Hopefully her next husband won’t do so first.

Finally, right here is where there was supposed to be a glowing little interview with Catherine Keener, who was such a revelation as the manipulative cum guzzler in Being John Malkovich that I was dying to effuse over her even more than gay bar rags have been doing over Ripley. Alas, her people refused to let it happen. Fair? Fair?


musto@villagevoice.com

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Astral Projections

The latest vogue in millennial-chic film journalism is to look at Young Hollywood through a crystal ball and ask: which of today’s stars will shine the brightest— and longest? Premiere magazine’s “Millennium Issue” forecasted “20 Stars for the Year 2020,” while Movieline‘s “Young Hollywood” edition approached staying power from the other direction— profiling stars like Winona Ryder and Claire Danes “who’ve survived murderous odds to become touchstones for their generation.” Both features gleefully ignore the big, fuzzy line between prophecy and advocacy and make shiny prognostications based largely on wish fulfillment, as in, “X will be famous forever because, well, I just know she will.” Consequently, Ewan McGregor will still be hot in 2020 because, according to Premiere, he is “modern cinema’s uncontested white knight.” Matt Damon, Movieline insists, is less an actor than a Yoda-like being who’s “intent on showing us who he is as a way of showing us who we are.” That’s pretty impressive, but it pales in comparison to Leo’s “profound, unearthly access to truth,” as cited by Premiere.

Clearly, there’s a sense that career longevity can be assured through sheer force of cheerleading. But in order to guarantee eternal fame for their respective stars, both mags rely on the quintessential ’90s formula for measuring success: analogy to past actors. Accordingly, Damon is “Tom Cruise by way of Jimmy Cagney,” Winona is a “Katharine Hepburn” who needs to “find her Tracy.” Miramax has spent the last two years grooming Gwynnie for the new Audrey Hepburn mantle, but Premiere comes along and crowns Natalie Portman “the Audrey Hepburn heir apparent we’ve been waiting for all these years.” So many Audrey Hepburns, so little time. Maybe that’s the problem. Perhaps none of these actors would have the success they have if they didn’t remind us of an actor from a previous era. Or maybe we simply need to expand the list of past references to include the next Jan-Michael Vincent (Val Kilmer), the next Kristy McNichol (Neve Campbell), and the next Tatum O’Neal (Liv Tyler).

Playing the “most likely to succeed” game with Hollywood stars in any era is an argument for chaos theory. There’s no better proof than the ’80s Brat Pack diaspora. Judd, Emilio, and Molly all gave it their best shot, but in the end they just couldn’t shed the one-dimensionality of terminal adolescence. As a world-wiser Andrew McCarthy put it recently, “I now look at this awarded [Brat Pack] distinction as one might look at a mole on the skin. You might prefer it was not there, yet there it is.”

Surveying today’s crop of fresh young talent, it’s simply impossible to separate those who’ll inherit the mole of dead fame from those who’ll rule the multiplexes in two decades. Right now the future looks especially bright for Christina Ricci, who, like Tinky Winky, provides a cute yet transgressive role model. Otherwise, most of the big stars of 2020 haven’t been born, or digitally engineered, yet.