Bad Dad, Better Mother

The first storm that must be weathered in Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds is not the misdiagnosed electrical storm that rolls in over a blue-collar New Jersey neighborhood, and disobeys a couple of basic laws of nature: "That is so weird. The wind is blowing toward the storm." And: "Where's the thunder?" That storm is easy and fun to get through ("Rachel, want to see something cool?"), all the way to the little pothole in the middle of the intersection where lightning has struck more than twice, and then to the heaving and cracking of the pavement around it, the breaking up of the church on the corner, the blink-of-an-eye materialization of a craterlike sinkhole and the rising out of it of a towering tripod possessed of a disintegrating death ray. If the publicists want us to abbreviate the title as WOW, they have their justification.

An earlier and tougher storm to weather, though, is the omniscient opening narration (in the mellow tones of Morgan Freeman, our Narrator Supremo, after Million Dollar Baby, March of the Penguins, et al.), which revises only slightly the opening of the original H.G. Wells novel: "No one would have believed in the early years of the 21st Century...." Oh, really? No one today would have believed that aliens were watching us? Did our narrator sleep through the 20th Century? Was he born yesterday? This is unmistakably a pre-science-fiction preamble (the term did not come into use for decades after the publication of Wells's novel in 1898), and it raises the specter of that familiar Spielberg arrogance -- more frightening than any space alien -- that presumes no subject has been done on screen until Spielberg does it: the Holocaust, WWII, slavery, whatever.

The alien-invasion subgenre, as everyone now knows, blossomed during the Cold War, fertilized by fears of Communist takeover; and it's quite reasonable, quite knowledgeable, to deduce that 9/11 and its aftermath could dump some fresh manure in the field. Spielberg makes damn good and sure that no one will miss the relevance: the "sleeper cells" hidden beneath American streets; the hero's coat of ashes fabricated from his incinerated fellow citizens; the shower of clothes from the sky; the bulletin board of the "missing"; and of course the natural question in the first confusion, "Is it the terrorists?"

All of that seems legitimate enough. This is a serious film in a way that Independence Day, merrily blowing up the White House so few years ago, didn't need to be, want to be, or pretend to be. There's something of an air of penitence in Spielberg's choice at this time to do an anti-Close Encounters, an anti-E.T. Or if not quite penitence, then a reappraisal, a caveat. He would appear to have seen a new light. And if his conversion falls short of total renunciation, it at least infuses him with a new zeal. (From A.I. to The Terminal, he has really been dragging.) The narrow focus of the action -- a divorced dad of limited parenting skills, stuck with his two pouty children for the weekend -- is hardly the cost-cutting tactic it would have been in the Fifties (an unprecedented price tag of $185 million has been mentioned), but it nonetheless imposes a measure of modesty, a concentration of forces. And a number of the events and sights on their trek back to Mom are conceived and realized with imagination and power: the riot over their car among fellow refugees on foot; the capsizing of the ferry; the flaming train roaring through a railroad crossing; the bodies floating down the river like logs to the lumber mill; the mist of blood emanating from the "processed" humans. And a running-scared Tom Cruise, deglamorized as a dock worker, proves conclusively what we all suspected, that he's better off when sticking to a script than when winging it on a talk show.

Still, the decision to re-do the seminal alien-invasion story, rather than to do a new one, tends to keep aloft the specter of Spielbergian arrogance. In spite of the gracious gran-and-gramps cameos for Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, the two stars of the commendable 1953 treatment of the novel, there is the inescapable implication that that version didn't have the wherewithal to do the job right. Surely the job needn't have been re-done in order for the story to acquire a new, a post-9/11 resonance. The old movie, the old novel, will already have acquired that resonance. But Spielberg has always been bound by literal-mindedness. For him, a story can't speak of terrorists unless someone in it speaks of terrorists. And it can't speak to the millions without spending the millions. No matter how eye-popping his special effects may be, no matter how much "improved" over those of a half-century ago, we are at every turn confronted by his belief in the almighty dollar, his infatuation with size, his complacent certainty that bigger is always better, and his dependence on mere loudness and suddenness to elicit a response from his audience. And his trusty old device of the temporary death, the takesy-backsy death, the just-fooling death, would indicate that his penitence for E.T. lacks a little something in sincerity.

Dark Water bears a certain similarity to War of the Worlds, a rhetorical, a metaphorical similarity. It is difficult enough being a divorced parent, in this case the mother, finding an apartment she can afford, taking a nearby job she doesn't want, coping with migraines, plumbing problems, an evasive landlord, a creepy concierge, a custody suit, and so forth -- without also being haunted by an unquiet ghost. That last, like an alien invasion, may be one difficulty too many. Dark Water arrives as yet another remake of a Japanese horror film, but not, please, "just another." It is more coherent, more cohesive, more cogent, than any others I've seen, any Ring, any Grudge, any at all. It has a palpable theme, motherhood, and an evocative visual motif, water, and these have been worked out meticulously and efficiently in the screenplay of Rafael Yglesias. And the action is firmly ensconced in a specific locale, Roosevelt Island, formerly Welfare Island, a tram ride from the bright lights of Manhattan, but a world apart, a world enclosed, with its ugly, utilitarian high-rise apartments "in the Brutalist Style," exuding all the warmth and charm of the postwar Communist Bloc. So firmly and so specific, in fact, that the film decisively cuts itself free from its source. (Which I confess I haven't seen.) The recent rush to plunder Japanese horrors, born of Hollywood's creative indolence and timidity, seems to me to have been a good thing insofar as it has shifted the focus of horror away from special-effects "thrill rides" and more toward mood and atmosphere. There is here a kind of Barton Fink feeling, practically a feeling of Repulsion, in the sheer physical oppression (the persistent rain, the low-watt lights, the balky elevator, the stain on the ceiling, the drip of oil-black water, the clump of hair coughed out of the bathroom faucet); and the cinematography of Affonso Beato (an Almodóvar man, plus Ghost World, most notably) admits as little color as possible, preferably gloomy, gray, greeny, yellowy, sickly color. The film would be sufficiently horrific even without the ghost, though it would then be missing two or three delectable frissons.

Jennifer Connelly, pale, thin, fragile, a bit wraithlike herself, just the sort of person an actual ghost might choose to reach out to, plays the unidealized mother who is trying very hard to surpass the very low standard set by her own mother, and not having an easy time of it. This actress long ago had no trouble establishing herself as one of our most beautiful; she has only lately been establishing herself as one of our best. And she gets good support from John C. Reilly as the smarmy but not actively malevolent landlord, the granite-faced Pete Postlethwaite as the put-upon handyman, Tim Roth as the competent if not fully committed family lawyer with a phantom family of his own, Camryn Manheim as the cushiony grade-school teacher, and Ariel Gade as the imperilled little six-year-old with the chocolate-drop eyes. Dougray Scott, already dislikable in the part of the troublemaking ex-husband, comes across as a bit ruthless and clumsy in his suppression of his native Scots accent, shouting himself down with American brass. Nothing in the career of Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries, Central Station, neither of which I went for in a big way) prepared us for this turn of events, this twist of fate. He does not, or not yet, go on the growing list of art-house directors who have eagerly sold out to Hollywood. The surprise is not that he would lower himself to do such a mass-market genre piece (his straight-to-video first film, Exposure, was a sleazy crime thriller with Peter Coyote); the surprise is that he could, in these circumstances, summon up such confident expertise and complete integrity. I would have to go back to Mimic to come up with something comparable. And the director of that one, Guillermo del Toro, has since sold out.

Me and You and Everyone We Know can fairly be called quirky, but quirkiness these days is no scarcer than shark's teeth, and it becomes necessary to distinguish between the pointlessly quirky and the pointedly. The issue still teeters in the balance when, for instance, a scraggly, trashy-looking white male, kicked out of the house by his black wife, says goodbye to his two café-au-lait children by setting his hand on fire outside their bedroom window. It has irreversibly tipped to the good, however, by the time a female driver of an Elder Cab, squiring a shut-in oldster to the shoe store to purchase a pair of neon blue Nikes, spies a goldfish in a plastic bag forgotten atop the car in front of her, is thereupon overcome by sentiments of sadness and helplessness over the fish's inevitable fate, yet feels honor-bound to accompany it to the end. You know right then that you're in the presence of a hypersensitive, a highly individual, and yes, a quirky vision, at once acute and tender. The vision would be that of the multimedia performance artist and first-time feature filmmaker Miranda July, who is an object of vision, herself, in the pivotal role of the moonlighting cab driver and, incidentally, aspiring multimedia performance artist, a figure redolent of insecurity and determination, pain and perseverance. No beauty ("but hey," as Bruce Springsteen sang it, she's "all right"), she makes an unlikely romantic heroine, though no less likely than the man she has set her cap for, the scraggly hand-burner, a sadsack shoe salesman, who offers her little encouragement. What she sees in him is her own deep secret.

Character interest is spread democratically among an assortment of oddballs: an inseparable pair of sexually precocious and morally stunted teenage girls; the phlegmatic boy selected to evaluate their fellatio technique; the grown man who should know better than to lead them on with obscene messages posted in his front window; the little girl methodically accumulating a "dowry" for her future marriage (towels, a blender, etc.); the littler boy, foggy on the facts of life, who initiates a coprophiliac relationship with an anonymous correspondent in an Internet chat room. (The vision, needless to add, is not just quirky but kinky too.) A chillingly and hilariously jaded museum curator ("Didn't we already show a local artist this year?") would appear to be the filmmaker's revenge on someone from life, and the revenge, if that's what it is, is taken a bit far in the final revelation about her, yet even she is left with a shred of dignity. The separateness, the strangeness, the unknownness of people are subjects close to the crosshairs of this filmmaker's vision. Even closer to dead-center are the fundamental elements of hope and improbability in any romantic overture. The quirkiness of the thing, though it feels as if drawn from reality and not imposed by force, is nevertheless a kind of tunnel vision.

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