by Lucius Shepard
April 3, 2001
A wintry day in Portland, and I betook myself to the local multiplex to pass a
few hours in my search for cinematic perfection. The lobby was, as usual,
fairly empty, populated by a smattering of pimply Caucasian youths in black
trousers and starched shirts who stared vacantly at bubbling vats of orange and
purple liquid, while visions of personal high Quake scores danced in their
heads. It took the little lady at the concession counter three tries to get my
change rightmy feeling was that the Education President had his work cut
out for him. As I passed doorway after doorway surmounted by signs announcing
the film playing within, I felt a curious pull from each of the doors, as if
the product within were exerting a kind of gravity designed to drag in the
braindead. Thank God, I was immune.
My viewing choice that day was Enemy at the Gates, a film by Jean-Jacques
Annaud (The Name of the Rose) that focused on the Battle of Stalingrad,
one of the bleakest and bloodiest chapters of World War II. The battle was in
actuality a war within a war and was fought mostly in the ruins of that city
for 180 days, serving to blunt the German advance into Russia. Annaud's script
seeks to lay credit for the Russian victory at the feet of one Vassili Zaitzev
(Jude Law), a shepherd from the Urals whose skill as a sniper demoralizes the
German officer cadre. Despite this simplistic thesis, the scenario provides the
ground upon which a top-notch thriller might have been mounted. Unfortunately,
this potential remains unrealized.
Enemy begins promisingly enough with Zaitzev's entry into the battle,
arriving on a troop train, and then, packed into a rickety-looking boat with
other fresh recruits, crossing the Volga into the smoke and fury of Stalingrad,
all rendered in horrific, smoldering, corpse-ridden detail by Annaud's camera.
Many of Zaitzev's fellows panic at the sight of the burning city and dive into
the river, whereupon they are shot by Russian officers; but the little shepherd
boy, trained by his grandfather as a marksman, remains calm. Even when forced
by superiors to enter the battle without a weapon, he proceeds with
determination, and eventually, after snatching up a rifle belonging to a fallen
comrade, he succeeds in potting half-a-dozen Germans hidden in a ruined
building. This attracts the interest of Commander Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), a
Soviet public relations officer, who in turn brings him to the attention of
Nikita Kruschev (an underused Bob Hoskins). Kruschev and Danilov need to
manufacture heroes in order to lift the spirits of Stalingrad's defenders, and
they turn Zaitzev into a 40s version of a media darling. As young Vassili picks
off German officers by the dozens, his picture comes to be featured in
newspapers throughout the country and he begins to receive fan mail. His
notoriety irritates the Nazi general staff, and they decide to dispatch the
taciturn and grizzled Major Koenig (Ed Harris), head of the German sniper
school, to kill him. A film that focuses on a duel between two master snipers
has by necessity a structural kinship with submarine movies. In each, two
skilled operatives, invisible to one another, must study their opponent's
habits and seek to outthink rather than outfight him. During the film's first
hour, Annaud does a more than credible job of establishing the requisite
oppressive atmosphere and tension. We are shown the ultra-cautious day-to-day
activities of the sniper teams and learn tidbits of lore regarding their deadly
tradefor instance, in winter snipers customarily fill their mouths with
snow so as not to give away their positions with puffs of frozen breath. Once
Koenig enters the fray, it becomes clear that he is by far the better man of
the two duelists. As members of Zaitzev's team are one-by-one slaughtered by
Koenig's Annie Oakley-class marksmanship, it would appear that the Soviet hero
is doomed. This further elevates the tension. How will our boy survive?
Annaud's answer to this question, sad to say, is the movie's undoing. At the
beginning of the second hour, he decides to elevate what has thus far been a
mild mutual attraction between Zaitzev and Tania Chernova (Rachel Weiss) into a
grand passion, then tosses in a Tania-infatuated Danilov to form a triangle,
thus dissipating all the tension he has so painstakingly achieved.
The romance between Tania and Vassili proceeds at what seems a rather leisurely
pace, when one considers that each day the defenders of Stalingrad woke to the
knowledge that they well might not live to see another morning. According to
diaries and various other sources, on any given night during the battle, male
and female soldiers, goaded by the fevers of war and desperation, commonly had
sex in the aisles of the crowded barracks. Tania and Vassili do, indeed, have
sex in the barracks, but they manage this surreptitiously, while others sleep
around them, and though this semi-clandestine act does serve to communicate a
degree of desperation, it scarcely matches the animalistic level of fear
displayed by their brothers-and-sisters-in-arms. To keep Koenig occupied while
Vassili and Tania flirt and finally consummate, Annaud inserts a frail sub-plot
concerning a wee Russian shoeshine boy, a pale, soulful tyke who pals up with
the deadly major and is so transparently a spy, one begins to suspect that
Koenig's inability to perceive the fact and his minimalist speech patterns are
both the result of drug abuse. By the time these two threads have become fully
realized, I was no longer much involved in the film. I could see exactly how
the ending would develop. Danilov, tormented by the green-eyed monster, would
betray Zaitzev, and thus inadvertently expose Tania to death or dishonor, or
perhaps cause her to lose the expensive cosmetics that had throughout kept her
looking like the poster girl for the Stalingrad War-obics Fitness Video. In the
meantime, Koenig would at last tumble to the shoeshine boy's perfidy and whack
him in some gruesome manner, thereby justifying his bloody fate. And
ultimately, overborne by guilt at his treachery, Danilov would sacrifice
himself in some ludicrous fashion that would allow Zaitzev to triumph, love to
reign supreme, and the Hollywood Gods to smirk at having transformed Stalingrad
into a date movie.
Why watch any more of this crud was my feeling. After tossing my empty box of
Goobers at the screen, I hied myself out into the lobby of the multiplex and
zipped up my jacket, preparing to brave the cold and the rain; but just then my
eye was caught by the alluring title Exit Wounds suspended in brightly
lit letters above a nearby door. It cast a winking sugary light that spoke to
my soul in a most peculiar way: Mmmm, I thought with a sort of doltish
delectation. Steven Seagal. Maybe, I told myself, a bit of the old
ultraviolence would cleanse the palette. I slipped into the theater just in
time to see Sgt. Orrin Bird (Seagal) save the Vice-President of the United
States by throwing him off a bridge into a river. Cool. This exactly reflected
my feelings concerning all vice-presidentsdon't hurt 'em, but drop 'em
off something every once in a while to keep them alert so they can perform as
vital partners with the President in our democratic
process . . . Yes, indeedy! But after the initial opening blast
of hurt and boom boom, I grew deflated. Leathery, bloated, with more creases
circling his neck than an ancient redwood trunk has rings, Seagal looked like a
man who would be more comfortable doing an AARP commercial than kicking some
giant Asiatic guy through a glass wall. His martial artistry was now the
creation of careful editingI imagined him on the set, having his foot
jacked up to eye level, with an RN holding a cortisone injection hovering just
off-camera. Some of the dialog, taken from the source novel by John Westerberg,
was funny, even trenchant, but watching Seagal's arthritic aikido was simply
too depressing, and eventually I wandered out into the lobby again, only to be
attracted by yet another sign. More than attracted. I was bedazzled, pumped
full of daft anticipation and tongue-lolling eagerness. What was happening to
me? The name of the film on the sign was Heartbreakers. Mmm. Sigourney
Alas, this story of mother-and-daughter con artists (mom marries 'em, daughter
seduces 'em, mom divorces 'em and gets a humongus settlement) soon suffered a
myocardial infarction caused by inept timing and a lame script.
Once again I hit the lobby and struggled toward the exit, only to be seduced by Traffic,
which proved to have all the dramatic verve of an ABC Afterschool Special. The
British miniseries that provided the source material was a zillion times
better. Once free of Traffic's puny spell, I fell prey to the call of Hannibal.
Ridley Scott's Florence is even prettier than his Rome, and judging by his
recent personal appearances, Sir Anthony Hopkins' Lecter is hardly a leap from
the humorless dead-eyed thespian who showed up at the Oscars as a presenter.
There followed The Mexican (an Oscar for Julia, and nothing for Brad?
Whass up with that? He's every bit the actor she is. Maybe even better. Time, I
say, to give the Academy a pants-down spanking!). Then it was off to Oh Brother
Where Art Thou? (the Coen Brothers join the long line of Yankees who
have sought to write with humorous condescension about the South and as a
consequence wound up looking like dorks). Then Chocolat ("Let's make a
witling faux-French farce about chocolate and sex and we'll pull in all the
cretins who think Ms. Gabriel Garcia Marquez Lite, Isabella Allende, is a real
writer"). And finally, Finding Forrester (invaluable life lesson to be
had from this one. Take Sean Connery to an empty baseball park,
thenlaterhave him stand behind you and yell, "Pound the keys!"
Literary greatness will be yours).
I staggered out into the lobby, having watched segments of half-a-billion
dollars' worth of mind-fogging, dimwitted, uniformly loathsome product, my mind
afire with questions such as how come Sigourney Weaver's breasts keep migrating
north?, and whatever happened to Gus Van Sant? Can Catherine Zeta-Jones out-act
a bag of kitty litter?, and why would you hire Ed Harris for a movie, give him
about seven lines, and then have him spend most of his screen time sitting
around wearing a half-smile and a Nazi uniform, looking as if he had just
smoked a blunt? And this to every theater that runs the message featuring the
little girl from The Bicentennial Man as a gruff-voiced cowboy who warns
us not to smoke or talk . . . Don't you realize that by
continuing to show this unbelievably annoying commercial for proper theater
behavior, you're setting up the kid as the target for a million stalkers? I was
trembling, nauseated. My heart was doing poly-rhythms. I doubted that my
depleted physical resources could stand another spirit-blighting hit of
Hollywood gunge. A man's kindly bespectacled face appeared in my field of
vision and a hand grasped my arm and helped me to my feetI hadn't
realized that I had fallen.
The man took my pulse, asked me to open my mouth, and after a cursory
examination, said, "MPT."
"Huh?" I said.
"Multiplexitois," he replied. "Caused by overexposure to cinematic mediocrity.
Causes something of a lemming syndrome in the victim. Compels him to watch
movie after movie until all tolerance and critical acumen are stripped away."
He gave me an encouraging pat on the shoulder. "Don't worry. It's rarely fatal.
However, if I were you, I'd get out of here. A really bad movie could be
dangerous for you." He handed me a card good for two free Kurosawa videos.
"Take two and call me in the morning," he said. "You should be fine." Thank
God, I thought as he walked away, that there was nothing left to see.
But I was wrong.
As I headed for the exit, my eye fell to a sign above a theater tucked away in
the corner of the multiplex, a door opening into a darkness thicker and deeper
than any I had that afternoon engaged. I tried to hold myself back, but I was
being sucked in as surely as I might had I drawn too near a collapsed star. I
understood this was a darkness from which I might never emerge, and I called
out to the teenaged staff, some of whom were pretending to sweep up, others
gaping at the blinking lights of the digital posters. Only a few, perhaps those
who had some primitive command of English, even looked my way. Onean
asthenic youth with the words NIHIL spelled out by pimples on his pasty
browopened his lipless mouth to expose snaggly yellow fangs and laughed.
None of the rest showed any sign of response. I was a goner. I could think of
nothing apart from bad movies and the terrible actors who populated them. I had
a disorienting vision of Michael Douglas clenching his jaw muscle, a movement
by which he expresses the entire range of his emotions, and I wondered if,
apart from citizens of the planet Metron, anyone really had a last name such as
Zeta. As I passed beneath the sign, I looked up and caught a last glimpse of
the words that would contrive my critical epitaph and conveyed the
quintessential horror toward which I was being dragged: Dude, Where's My Car?