Matters of Life and Death

Sydney Pollack's name on a topical thriller offers no guarantee, but it offers at least a promise. A promise, to be more specific, of tweedy dullness and liberal softness: Havana, The Firm, Absence of Malice, Three Days of the Condor. And was Random Hearts a thriller as well? Hard to tell. (The "essential" Sydney Pollack lies in other directions altogether: Out of Africa, Tootsie, The Way We Were.) So I was looking forward -- not in spite of all that, but honestly because of it -- to The Interpreter, his first film since Random Hearts six years ago, confident that it would be free of the sorts of thrillerish antics I was seeing in the trailer for XXX: State of the Union, the hero leaping from a rooftop onto the undercarriage of a helicopter, a fireball blossoming behind him.

It's true, as I knew from its own trailer, that a bus will be blown up in The Interpreter, but that turns out to be the extent of the pyrotechnics. The pre-credits sequence in Africa, the furthest thing from a James Bond pre-credits sequence, tells us precisely how to adjust our sights: a bit of that indigenous choral chant that proclaims the catholicity of the filmmaker's soul, a gruesome spectacle of slaughtered bodies in the bowels of a tumbledown soccer stadium, and the addition of a couple of new bodies to the pile. We will not be startled to find that the unfolding events take us into the areas of ethnic cleansing, land mines, terrorist bombs, political assassination, and a renewal of faith in the postwar ideals of the United Nations. The not too tricksy plot (I picked out the villain without even thinking) starts out with the tried-and-true device of the Overheard Murder Plot: a U.N. interpreter, returning after hours to her bird's-nest booth above the General Assembly, happens to eavesdrop on a whispered death threat, in the little-known language of Ku, against the visiting president of the mythical nation of Matobo. (Nice touch: a delayed fluorescent light that reveals the eavesdropper to the unseen conspirators, but doesn't tip them off to her presence till they have already spilled the beans.)

Pollack, of course, is a people person, not a gadgets person, and the casting of Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn in the lead roles is your guarantee, not mere promise, of a classy piece of filmmaking. Kidman plays the title character, hiding a dark past on the Dark Continent, a damsel in distress awaiting her white knight ("I'm scared, and my protector is someone who doesn't believe me"); and Penn plays the Secret Service agent on the case, a man half-numbed by the recent death of his wife, and the other half numbed by professional jadedness ("She's a liar"). The role, in both its halves, encourages Penn to underplay, and to let his creased and rumpled face tell a tale. Kidman, on the other hand, has not forgotten how to act (her verbal fencing with Penn strikes some sparks), and yet she has removed herself from the run of humanity in her increasingly exotic, nearly extraterrestrial appearance: thin as a blade of grass, skin as tight as a drum, a curtain of Veronica Lake hair over one eye, a virtual cartoon of a femme fatale. She is now fit for not much more than acting an actress. Catherine Keener is another matter, unafraid to show her age, and therefore eligible for a lead role only in an indie, here relegated to a Secret Service second banana. Still, she has one of the best lines in the film, or best readings thereof: "Well, that's just rude." I won't disclose the context.

Though the tweedy dullness and liberal softness have been delivered in bulk, the lead-up to the exploding bus generates some genuine suspense, with three separate suspects and their Secret Service shadows converging on the same conveyance. ("What's goin' on?" "I don't know, but it don't feel good.") Pollack gets good mileage elsewhere, too, out of the cross-cutting technique employed there. Even if he doesn't get much tension or pace out of it, he at any rate gets complexity. But the best reason to see the film is unquestionably for the cinematography of the Iranian-born Darius Khondji (Delicatessen, Seven, The Ninth Gate, et al.), the smooth, sleek, polished surface of the image, the clean, fresh air within (remarkably so for New York City), the warm, moist, and radiant flesh tones. The best reason to see it, in other words, is simply to see it. You can't ask for less.

House of D, the writing and directing debut of David ("Mulder") Duchovny, is a coming-of-age film of mortifying immaturity. At its outset, Duchovny is an American artist living in Paris, narrating in that flat affect of his, telling us of a secret which he has harbored since his thirteenth birthday, and which he plans shortly to share with his son on the latter's thirteenth birthday. (In the extended flashback to the early Seventies, Duchovny's off-screen wife, Téa Leoni, will play the part of his on-screen mother: something for the Freudians to chew on.) At this juncture in cinema history, the casting of Robin Williams as a "retarded" janitor at St. Andrews School for Boys -- it's a period piece, remember -- gives sufficient grounds to dismiss the film from serious consideration, even without the face-deforming Nutty Professor dentures. (Same as any film, at this juncture, that would cast Christopher Walken or Dennis Hopper as a psycho bad guy.) Given the giggly delight taken in the comic material of asses, balls, boners, peepee, etc., over and above the "childlike" nature of the character, it's easy to see why Williams came to mind for the part. But that's exactly the point, exactly the reason he should have been expelled from mind.

The bathroom humor bumps up against equally low sentimentality: the faceless black woman who imparts sage advice from solitary confinement in the House of Detention, three stories above street level; and the face finally given to her, three decades later, in the present-tense return to the States at the end. And, if anyone still cares by that time, the eventual revelation of the deep dark secret -- not to give too much of it away -- takes a couple of tons of chutzpah, coming as it does within months of Million Dollar Baby. Duchovny, in effect, becomes the real-life equivalent of the string-bean mental defective in the Eastwood film, forever challenging Thomas "Hitman" Hearns to a punch-out. And Eastwood, then, would become the "Hitman."

But I have descended to the trivial, and must catch myself before I descend further to The Amityville Horror or King's Ransom. The bigger matter on my mind this week is my young colleague and friend, Greg Muskewitz, an online critic who first started to turn up at press screenings, along with his voracious appetite for movies, while he was still in high school, and who early last Friday lost his unwinnable fight against bone cancer, almost twenty months after he lost a leg to it. He was twenty-three. Twenty-three....

I think of myself at that age. And I think (to try to measure the magnitude of this from my assigned observation post) of the number of movies I then felt I absolutely had to see before I was through. And I think of how the number of them simultaneously grew and got chipped away over the years, and of how I have now lived long enough (into the age of video and DVD) that the chipping-away has come to outbalance the growth, and of how the remaining number (or any more that may yet be added) are less and less likely to be life-altering experiences. That's partly because any movie that has remained so elusive for so long would probably prove to be not all that momentous, and partly because a life that has run on so long is not as liable to be altered by a mere movie. And I think again of myself at twenty-three....

But I am not talking about myself. Not really. When his oncologist, last December, gave him six more months, he wondered whether, among other things, he could hang around long enough to see the summer blockbuster based on his favorite comic book, Fantastic Four. As it turned out, he could not hang around long enough even to see the May 3rd episode of a favorite TV show, The Gilmore Girls, on which -- a wish fulfilled -- he is scheduled to appear as an extra. Sometimes six months are only four. Toward the end, he sent me, unsolicited, a list of his all-time Top Ten, in reverse order of preference (for added suspense): Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Time Machine (1960), The Sweet Hereafter, Hairspray, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, That Obscure Object of Desire, Last Year at Marienbad, Dr. Strangelove, Manhattan, Lost Highway. He was his own man. He was his own mystery. How would that list have read, twenty or thirty years from now?

If I have done pretty well to chip away at my mountain of movies, I have not done as well with the mountain of mandatory books. They, I might tell myself, would always be there, within easy reach, whenever I could get around to them; and somehow it seemed a comfort to know that I still had a couple of unread Conrads, as an example, waiting in reserve. In the meantime, there was always another Bruce Willis film to get to. And there's my remedial lesson in all this. Maybe it's time to get around to Nostromo while the getting is good.

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