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2 U Won't H8
by Lucius Shepard
September 7, 2001

The summer, thank God, is over. Gone are the amazingly simplistic, detonation-laden excesses with which the ambulatory bean bags who rule the Filmoverse have sought to lobotomize us, and though we can expect more idiocy in the form of "high quality" Hollywood product as year's end draws nigh, counter-programming, dammed up and reduced to a trickle by the impacted ordure resulting from the passage of the dinosaurlike creations that have been galumphing through the multiplexes, will once again flow freely, and we will see a number of pictures that actually are of high quality or--at least--of not so low a quality that they resist rational analysis. I am delighted to say that two such films will be considered herein.

The Deep End is essentially a remake of a 1949 film noir classic, The Reckless Moment, directed by Max Ophuls and starring Joan Bennet and James Mason. Directors Scott McGeehee and David Siegel (Suture) set their updating in Lake Tahoe and cast Tilda Swinton (Orlando) in the Bennet role, a choice that reflects well on their instincts, for it is Swinton's performance that is the most memorable element of the picture.

As End opens, Margaret Hall (Swinton) is seen entering a Reno gay meatmarket called The Deep End, where she asks Darby Reese (Josh Lucas), a smarmy lad who verges upon being a sexual predator, to keep away from her son, Beau (Jonathan Tucker), a talented young trumpet player just out of high school. Darby's reaction is to say, Sure, if you pay me. Margaret returns to her home on the lake and tells Beau what has happened, but he refuses to believe her. That same night, however, when Darby drives out to Tahoe and meets with Beau in the Hall family's boathouse, Darby admits that he asked Margaret for money. The two men fight, but Beau breaks away and runs back to the house. Unbeknownst to Beau, Darby leaves the boathouse and leans on the pier railing to catch his breath. A rotten board gives way and he falls to his death, his chest punctured by an anchor lying on the shingle below.

The following morning, Margaret finds Darby's corpse and, fearing that Beau may have killed him, she drags the body into a launch, transports it to a distant part of the lake, and, after weighting it with the anchor, dumps it over the side. Later, when she realizes that Darby's Corvette is parked out front, she is forced to dive down to the body and retrieve his keys so she can drive it back to Reno and abandon it there. Thinking that she has covered up Beau's crime, she goes back to caring for her three children and their grandfather Jack (Peter Donat)--her husband, a naval officer, is at sea on maneuvers, and Margaret is, to all intents and purposes, a single mom. All, it seems, is under control. But after the body is discovered by a fisherman, Margaret receives a visit from Alek Spera (Goran Visnjic), a personable expatriate conman who knows that Darby visited Tahoe on the night he died. He brings with him a video tape and insists that she watch it--it shows Beau and Darby having sex. Alek tells Margaret he and his partner, Nagle (Raymond J. Barry), want fifty thousand dollars by the next afternoon or he will give the video to the local police. Margaret spends all that day and the next trying to raise the money, but she cannot--new lines of credit, a mortgage, loans...everything she tries requires her husband as a co-signatory, and he is unreachable. The hour appointed for her payoff meeting with Alek passes, and he drives back to Tahoe to confront her. But upon his arrival he finds her trying ineffectually to give CPR to Jack, who has had a heart attack. Alek helps her save the old man and in the process begins to become attracted not only to Margaret but to the cleanness of her life by contrast to his own. If it were not for his rapacious partner, Alek might well pull back from the blackmail scheme, but he knows that if he does, Nagle will do far worse to the family than extort money. When someone is arrested for Darby's murder, he goes back to Margaret and informs her that he has tried to put an end to the blackmail scheme, but Nagle will not desist--he is demanding the money. Alek tells her that he himself will not take a share, but she will have to raise 25K for Nagle. Margaret, who knows that the man arrested is innocent, manages to get twelve thousand by pawning her jewelry, but this is not sufficient to satisfy Nagle--he comes after her, and this sets into motion a violent climax in which both men come to grief.

The idea of evil corrupted by good is perhaps the most interesting of the traditional noir- themes. It is exemplified in this instance by a criminal with an honorable heart persuaded to rash and life-endangering action by an honest woman who, despite the purity of her intent, becomes for him a kind of femme fatale. Usually such films are seen mostly from the man's point of view, but End relies almost entirely on Margaret as the narrative character, and this imbalance weakens the structure of the picture. We want to know more about Alek's confusion, his sense of exposure in coming out from the secure shadows of his criminal life to engage this woman who lives in the clear light of day. The directors attempt to convey the dissonance between Alek's world and that of Margaret by never shooting him in strong sunlight, while shooting Margaret often in light so bright that she seems less a person than an expression of that light given human form; but this technique, albeit effective, does not illuminate everything we need to know, and we find ourselves demanding more information about Alek than is provided. In The Reckless Moment, James Mason and Joan Bennet burn up the screen with an electric intensity in order to convey this unlikely relationship. In End, both Swinton and Visnjic take a more understated approach to basically the same roles, and while this seems appropriate to the milieu in which the story is set, the script is not quite fleshed out enough to support the approach--the moviegoer has to work a tad too hard in order to accept so subtly stated a connection. (There is another script problem--the idea that Swinton, who lives in a beautiful house on the shores of Lake Tahoe, cannot come up with 25k simply does not wash.) Yet at the same time, the performances of the two leads are the main strength of the movie.

With her finely cut features and redhead paleness, Swinton conveys grace under pressure better than any actress since another great redhead, Deborah Kerr. As she goes about getting rid of Darby's body and car, her courage when confronted with this terrifying business is projected with a marvelous precision of facial gesture, as is the fear of her son's homosexuality that she experiences on seeing Beau just after having watched the video tape of him and Darby. She seems lit up by every nuance of feeling, to register the slightest changes in emotional temperature, and it is fascinating to watch the interplay between Margaret and Alek, a man who is beginning to understand that he is trapped on a course that leads to the deepest of ends and cannot find it in himself to pull back in order to save his life. As it stands, the film may wind up generating an Oscar nomination for Swinton, but had it included two or three more minutes illustrating her involvement with Visnjic, especially if McGeehee and Siegel had provided another significant scene revealing more of Alek's attitudes, we might have had a modern classic on our hands.

Which brings us to our second film.

Let's pretend that in the beginning was the Word, and the earth was without form, and along came God Who made us in His image and all that good junk, and He was so well pleased, He took a nap on the seventh day, and on the eighth, well, maybe He had a date to go bowling or another construction job somewhere, so off He went and left every glorious and beautiful thing He had made to devolve until the whole of Creation eventually came to resemble a seedy portion of LA in the early 21st Century...this would seem to be the underlying premise of Ghost World, the first non-documentary film by Terry Zwigoff (Crumb), based on the underground comic by Daniel Clowes, who co-authored the screenplay with Zwigoff. From the movie's opening sequence, when the camera pans across the face of a rundown apartment building, sampling the occupants within--a fat man eating alone, a family zombified in front of the TV, their failing energies at one with the ghostly flickering of the tube--we understand that we are about to watch a story that concerns people who exist beneath the world's radar, who like most of us are not the stuff of Hollywood films, not supercriminals or heroes or alien invaders or beautiful teenage victims or perky girls to whom nothing really bad ever happens, but rather are sadly ordinary in our defining characteristics, living lives of quiet desperation and deriving pleasure from middling joys that are often imperceptible to anyone except ourselves. It is not a subject that much appeals to the studios. I recall a friend of mine, an accomplished author, telling me how when he was shopping his Pulitzer-nominated novel in Hollywood, he met with a producer who, having read the book, engaged him in the following conversation:

Producer: This book's about a plumber, right?

Friend (confused): Right....

Producer (agitated): It's about a plumber who goes to Miami and ends up rescuing a bunch of (here he uses the plural of the N word), right?

Friend (put-off): Yeah, I guess you could say that.

Producer (leaning forward, aggressive): Why should I

care?

The proper answer to the producer's question, which my friend was too aggravated to supply, is: because it's a good story, you stupid creep. The problem is that most folks in Hollywood wouldn't know a good story if it bit them on the wallet. To them, a good story dovetails with the idea of "high concept" and almost necessarily involves stuff like alien viruses and massive explosions and identity switches and ridiculous plot twists that they believe will make a movie special, distinguishing it by an infinitesimal degree from the last movie they believed was special, something starring a tabloid figure with a script by some forlorn simian who never once during the process had an original thought, and which had a thirty-million-dollar opening, dropped 53% in its second week, didn't cover its investment domestically but is doing huge business on DVD in Japan, Italy, and Indonesia, all clearly discernible signs of specialness.

Plumbers need not apply.

There are no plumbers featured in Ghost World, but the characters involved most likely have had dealings with one, something that cannot be said for the characters in the vast majority of studio movies (unless said plumber happens to handle freelance wetwork for the CIA on the side), and the story they contrive by means of their interactions is a very good story, indeed, albeit a diffusely stated one. Primarily, it is a coming-of-age piece centering about Enid (Thora Birch), an attractive, slightly overweight young woman who has just graduated high school and, instead of going to college, is planning to move into an apartment with her best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johanson). Together, the two girls form a unit, a two-woman hit team of disaffected social critics who spice the boredom of their lives by disparaging and tormenting their acquaintances, often to the point of playing cruel tricks upon them. Their reason for moving in together is basically so that they can continue their team-trashing of the urban nightmare, but as the post-graduation summer wears on, it becomes evident that Enid has grown dissatisfied with this prospect (though she hasn't yet recognized the fact). She begins to cast her nets wider, searching for the eidolon that all of us are searching for: something more.

While sitting around one day, ridiculing the personal ads in a newspaper, the girls run across an ad in which a lonely man attempts to contact a blond woman he has met on the airport shuttle, and sensing the presence of a true loser, they call the man and leave a message on his answering machine, pretending to be the blond in question and arranging a rendezvous at a Fifties-themed diner named Wowsville.

Enter Steve Buscemi.

No one plays the stereoptypical loser better than Buscemi, but the wonderful thing about Ghost World is that the screenwriting is so deft in its specificity, it allows Buscemi's character, Seymour, to dissolve the limits of stereotype. (Indeed, thanks to the intelligence of Clowes and Zwigoff, many of the potential stereotypes whom Enid engages on her odyssey of self-discovery manage this feat.) When Seymour shows up at Wowsville and unhappily drinks a milkshake while waiting, checking his watch many times, Enid and Rebecca lampoon him mercilessly, with Enid doing a caricature in her cartoonist's journal that depicts him weeping and thinking, Nobody Loves Me. But when Seymour leaves and is nearly killed in a traffic mishap, Enid insists that they follow him home, and soon thereafter, intrigued by him, she attends a weekly garage sale at which Seymour sells used blues records. It turns out that his passion is a superb collection of old 78s. Enid buys a record from him, a compilation of old blues cuts, and becomes entranced by a Robert Johnson song. This consolidates her interest in Seymour, and they become friends...so much so that Enid takes it upon herself to find a woman for Seymour, who hasn't had a date in four years. The new friendship frays her relationship with Rebecca, and the two girls begin drifting apart.

Eventually the blond woman whom Seymour had sought to meet surfaces, and the two initiate an affair that changes Seymour and undercuts his friendship with Enid. Pushed away from Seymour, unable to reconnect entirely with Rebecca, horrified by the woman her profoundly confused father--with whom she lives--is considering as a potential wife, Enid travels farther afield in her search for a meaningful relationship. Along the way she encounters, among others, Roberta, a feminist art teacher played in her customary broadly charming style by Illeana Douglas, and Norman (Dwight Stephenson Jr.), an old man who appears to sit 24-7 on a bench at a not-in-service bus stop, neatly dressed in a dark suit and tie, waiting for a bus that may never come. When Enid tries to persuade him that his waiting is in vain, he tells her that the bus will be along soon and when it does he will be leaving town.

Much of the conversation in Ghost World, the lion's share of it taking place between Seymour and Enid, is concerned with the nature of being a loser--"loser" utilized as a label that denotes someone who has no significant resource that will permit them to transcend their hapless condition. Each of the characters comes ultimately to terms with their condition in various ways. Some, like Seymour, learn to accept it with grace; others continue their useless defeated struggle. The exceptions to this rule of acceptance are Norman, who eventually leaves town on the bus that finally arrives, and Enid, who later catches a bus from the same bench, but likely to a destination different from Norman's--it is given us to suspect that the metaphor of leaving town means death in Norman's case, and that Enid may be bound for greater things. This is all redolent of the tendentious and frequently one-dimensional materials that inform underground comics, but in Zwigoff's hands the material comes of age, transcends its condition, and leaves town in the same direction that Enid takes. Zwigoff's film succeeds in being at once cynically funny, gently mystical, and, most significantly, human in its portrayal of ordinary process and the small graces that let us survive amid the poisons of our soul-smothering culture. Assisting in Zwigoff's enterprise, Thora Birch gives a surprisingly depthy reading of the artist-as-a-young-rebellious-misanthrope who might easily be mistaken for something less than deep, and Buscemi, in his best part since Trees Lounge, responds with a performance that eschews the sad, baggy-eyed mugging which lesser directors have encouraged him to rely upon, and invests Seymour with strength and a sweet dignity. Scarlett Johansson is also noteworthy in her take on a young woman who is too intelligent to be popular, too pretty to be anti-social in the way she aspires to be, and neither pretty nor intelligent enough to escape her limited expectations. The smaller parts are all fleshed out nicely by a cast that includes Bob Balaban (Enid's dad) and Teri Garr (dad's girfriend).

It's possible, I suppose, to dismiss Ghost World as being merely a good entertainment, and perhaps that's all it is; yet it is so unobtrusively appealing and seductive a film that it resonates with the viewer and causes you to think about the characters long after watching it, to wonder about their futures. This seems a sign that perhaps it deserves a higher rating, that it may be a film whose surface lightness succeeds in magnifying a greater landscape than it appears to display. Whatever its future status, be it minor classic or interesting cultural artifact, it certainly deserves consideration as one of the best American movies of the year and provides a welcome relief from a summer rife with monstrously bloated, uninvolving, and almost unendurable feature films, many with budgets large enough to fund several new landfills, a purpose for which the money might have been better spent. And with this in mind, this most horrid of all movie summers, I'd like to conclude with a little prayer.

Thank You, Whoever You Are, for permitting me to survive my two hours on the Planet of the Apes--though I cannot thank You for letting Markie Mark live to act again. Thank You also for letting me retain some semblance of mental acuity after watching Travolta with a soul patch hump his way through the unspeakably horrible and spiritually debasing Swordfish; thank You for giving me the strength to avoid both Pearl Harbor and Tomb Raider; thank You for drastically limiting the box office take of the abomination known as America's Sweethearts (ditto, The Mexican); thank You for causing AIto be made so I could add another to my Most Hated Moves Ever list; thank You for inspiring Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas to produce a child, but please, in Thy mercy, do not allow said child to find work as an actor; thank You for no Tom Cruise films this summer; thank You for giving me the foresight to have on hand an airsick bag before viewing Ghosts of Mars, a chunk of guano that surely marks finis to the career of John Carpenter, once the best B-movie director in the world; thank you for killing off the Jurassic Park franchise; thank You for no Kevin Costner and Arnold Schwarzenegger films, too; thank You for Roger Ebert and Joel Siegel and Peter Travers and all the rest of the professional cheerleading squad who make every dissenter look good; thank You for offering us at least the hope of a writers and actors strike; thank You for getting me through Saving Silverman without lashing out at the feeb who came over with a friend of mine to watch my screener and laughed at every lame joke; thank You for having someone outbid me on Ebay for the Tom Hanks Castaway soccer ball, thereby effectively preventing me from being prosecuted for sending it stuffed with roadkill to his home...

I have but one favor to ask of You. If what I've heard from industry people is true, that next summer's movies are going to be even worse, would You mind maybe doing that little thing you did with Sodom to the major studios? I would really appreciate it and I promise never to ask for anything else again in my whole life.

Lastly, thank You for Ghost World.

I feel much better now.