The natural suspicion surrounding any and all of the “alternative” programs at the Reading Gaslamp (né Pacific Gaslamp) is that these must be films that the Landmark chain turned up its nose at. Rejects. Undesirables. Beggars. Two openings last Friday provided conflicting evidence.
Hounddog, a quasi Carson McCullers coming-of-age tale set in rural Alabama in the late Fifties, has attained some small notoriety, too small to amount to a full-blown controversy, as the Dakota Fanning Rape Movie. That boils it down a bit too far. Needless to say, thirteen-year-old girls have been known to be raped, and filmmakers ought to retain the prerogative of putting that on screen, and thirteen-year-old actresses should not have to cede the role to Ellen Page or her equivalent. The deed itself, at the hands of a bad-complexioned older boy, could be said to be treated discreetly — neck-up framing, including the preludial nude dance — were it not for the gaudy symbolism of the impalement of the victim’s hand on a rusty nail.
But there’s much more where that came from, both before and after. The show-me-your-thing flirtation with a lad her own age. The smooches on the lips. The Elvis-the-Pelvis gyrations in imitation of the heroine’s idol, who blows her a kiss from his convertible on a country road in the dark of night. (Fanning’s unaccompanied rock-and-rolling perhaps constitutes the greatest betrayal of trust on the part of her director: hanging the plucky actress out to dry.) The strategic soapsuds in the bathtub. The wet underwear at the swimming hole. The trying-on of a grownup’s bra over her clothes. The sharing of the screen with a stark-naked, albeit discreetly photographed, David Morse, as her sit-on-my-lap father. And finally, the hallucinatory snakes slithering over her entire body, not missing her crotch.
All of this, under the eye of a female filmmaker, Deborah Kampmeier, is assuredly meant to arouse discomfort, and nothing more than discomfort. And the film would most charitably be seen as a significant step, an unmissable plateau, in the process of watching Dakota Fanning grow up before our eyes. She wasn’t going to be trapped in Charlotte’s Web forever. Along with a little provocation, however, come a lot of backwater tedium and triteness (the fire-and-brimstone grandmother, the avuncular black man, the snotty rich girl) and a lot of jaundiced color (Ed Lachman, the normally capable cinematographer). There are plenty of reasons, besides possible controversy, why Landmark might have opted to pass on it. And Landmark has scant history of shying from controversy.
Claude Miller’s A Secret is an altogether different matter, a manifest film of quality. (For the cognoscenti familiar with the sneering use of that noun by Miller’s mentor, François Truffaut in his green years as a film critic, let me be plain that I’m using it without the sneer.) “Based on true events,” and on an autobiographical novel by Philippe Grimbert, it chronicles more than a half-century in the lives of a family of French Jews, working its way forwards and backwards from its postwar starting point: the weakling son of athletic parents, taking refuge in fantasies of an adept fraternal alter ego, and of his parents’ idealized earlier lives. (In a reversal of the norm, the later years are shot in black-and-white, for easy differentiation.)
That’s a lot of ground to cover in only an hour and three-quarters. The pivotal periods of 1955, 1962, and 1985 have been linked together by three separate actors with an identifying mole between the eyes, the oldest of them being the new James Bond villain, Mathieu Amalric. And although these periods seem involving enough when we’re in them, the years before and during the Occupation — when the truth of the parents’ earlier lives comes to light — decisively dominate the action, and concentrate our attention, to such extent that the other periods begin to feel in retrospect a little like dead weight.
The truth of the parents’ past is of course very unlike the fantasy. They meet as in-laws at the future father’s wedding, the mother at that time married to the bride’s brother: the look in the groom’s eye at First Sight of his soon-to-be sister-in-law tells us he’d be willing to swap on the spot. (It’s strange to see the pixieish Ludivine Sagnier, as the new bride, so outshone in the pulchritude department: the tan, tall, erect Cécile de France, perilously perky in the light comedy of Avenue Montaigne, and still sporting the Tinkerbell haircut, is thoroughly imposing as an Olympic swimmer and haute couture model.) Then come the Nazis; and simultaneous with the slow-boil adulterous passion, the film probes the complexities of anti-Semitism, even among Jews. All aspects — the time shuffle, the fleeting fantasy, the engulfing history and politics, the microscopic intimacy and sensuality, not neglecting a silently suffering lesbian masseuse — are handled with delicacy and finesse, straight through to the ironic and touching epilogue in a pet cemetery. Landmark, seven films filling up its ten screens last week, could offer nothing to rival it. Next up at the Gaslamp, this coming Friday, are Take Out, a drama of illegal immigrants (Chinese) in New York City, and The Order of Myths, a documentary on the evolving Mardi Gras tradition in Mobile, Alabama. Scorecards at the ready.
Previously — to turn back the clock a week — your dutiful reviewer, caught up on the major new releases and happy to take it easy over the Thanksgiving holiday, found himself without a forum when, out of left field, the UltraStar Chula Vista unveiled a Kurosawa film festival starting this past Friday and continuing through tonight, Thursday the 11th. Not, mind you, the UltraStar Mission Valley, home to the San Diego Asian Film Festival and San Diego Latino Film Festival, but the UltraStar Chula Vista, a shopping-mall multiplex where I have been lured once in my life for a Spanish-language promo screening. Some sort of a warning, a word to the wise, a heads-up, a tip-off, more prosaically a press release or a phone call, would have been appreciated. Landmark Theatres, although more and more disinclined in this direction, could have been counted on to make sure I knew about it ahead of time. (I know already about the midnight series at the Ken that kicks off in January with Walter Hill’s Kurosawa-esque gang film, The Warriors, as close to a classic as Landmark will have come in some while.)
All I could do at a moment’s notice, anyhow, was to shuffle the recycled old capsule reviews into the weekly movie listings, and I must say I was struck by the alphabetical surreality of Hidden Fortress and High and Low butting up against High School Musical 3: Senior Year, and Yojimbo butting up against Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and even Seven Samurai butting up against Slumdog Millionaire. I am aware, scratch my head though I may, that a lot of people are excited by the razzle-dazzle, the hustle-bustle, the hurly-burly of Slumdog Millionaire. But how exciting, I wonder, will it still be in fifty years? An artist of the stature of Akira Kurosawa truly puts things in perspective, and his presence under the same roof as Quantum of Solace and Transporter 3 immediately upgrades the quality of life in our fair (to middling) city. I would have liked to make more of the occasion.