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Fresh Meat for the Hollywood Shuffle
by Lucius Shepard
April 30, 2001

Ah, summer! Baseball, ice cream vendors, girls in bikinis, kids splashing and laughing in the spray from a fire hydrant. A joyful time for muggers, for all manner of violent criminals and their helpless prey. A time for the singing of National Anthems and the joining of parades, for crowning beauty queens and vandalizing junior highs closed until the fall. Time for the good drugs to hit the streets on urban corners everywhere, and for wrinkling one's nose in disgust, jumping to one's feet and shouting, What's that smell?

Oh, right . . .

A time for summer movies.

Time for the high-priced mediocrities we have deified to put in their seasonal appearances. Time for Travolta and Pitt and Cruise to rev up those trademark vacuous grins. Time, too, for soon-to-be legendary has-beens Stallone and Willis and Schwarzenegger (and won't he be swell in the role of the maddened bastard warrior child of Norman Schwarzkopf in Desert Storm Trooper?). Time for Robert de Niro's annual mailed-in where's-my-check performance. Time for Anthony Hopkins to do the same. Time for Matt Damon to prove anew that he is an even more inept actor than the spectacularly bad Matthew McConaughey. Time for Julia Roberts . . . and don't you think now that she's supplanted Streisand as the worst actress ever to win an Oscar, it's time for her to direct herself in some truly important vehicle, like QVC: The Movie? Time for the latest in a long, long line of Jennifer Love Hewitts to milk a minor league career out of breathing deeply. Time for exploitative violence to inspire the imaginations of twisted high schoolers, and for some hundred-million-dollar wad of glup to insinuate itself into the American consciousness and activate the national drool reflex.

But while we await the tidal wave of fecal matter that spews forth annually from the myriad orifices of Studio City, a festival of art like none other, this year's list headed up by AI, a retelling of the Pinocchio story helmed by button-pushing hackmeister supreme Steven Spielberg that promises to generate sufficient gooey sentiment to send anyone with the intelligence of a mud weevil scrambling for an airsick bag . . . Before we get to all that, there are a number of independent films in current release that deserve our attention. Perhaps the most interesting of these is Memento, a genre-bending exercise in noir that marks the debut of British writer-director Christopher Nolan. Memento tells the story of Leonard Shelby, an insurance investigator played with sinewy intensity by Australian actor Guy Pearce, who made a big impression as the straight-arrow detective in L.A. Confidential opposite Russell Crowe. Leonard, injured in the attack by person or persons unknown that led to his wife's rape and murder, can no longer form new memories. He recalls the details of his life up to the night of the murder, but if he talks to someone for more than a few minutes, he runs the risk of forgetting who that person is and what they are discussing. As he goes about the daunting task of solving his wife's murder, Leonard is forced to shore up his faulty memory by taking Polaroids of the people he meets, writing himself notes, and tattooing information essential to the investigation on his chest and arms. On top of all this quirkiness, Nolan spins his narrative backwards, opening the film with its emotional climax (or is it?) and ending at the beginning of the story, a process that creates a surprising and truly sinister intellectual climax.

As Leonard careens through lowlife L.A., searching for a man with the initials J.G., he is befriended (or is he manipulated?) by a self-proclaimed small-time hustler, Teddy, the part done to a turn by stellar character actor Joe Pantoliano, now on view as Ralphie in The Sopranos, and by Natalie the sexy and devious barmaid (Carrie Ann Moss of The Matrix). Because of his afflicted memory, Leonard is easy to take advantage of—for example, the manager of the motel where he is staying is renting him two rooms at the same time, neither of which Leonard recalls—and this allows Nolan to leaven the dark materials of the film with a necessary seasoning of humor, placing emphasis on the fact that everyone Leonard encounters, even old acquaintances, he is in essence meeting for the first time, and thus is forced to explain his condition over and over again to the same people.

The artfulness of Nolan's narration cannot be overstated. We are led Polaroid by Polaroid, misconception by misconception, backward through what appears to be Leonard's nightmare. But little in this film is what it appears, and we are forced, along with Leonard, not only to figure out the answers he is seeking but also to separate the important questions from the infinity of questions that comprises his day-to-day life. If this film had been made by a big studio, it's quite likely that all the essential information concerning the plot would have been frontloaded, because the studio heads consistently obey Barnum's dictum that no one ever lost a buck by underestimating the intelligence of the American public. A case in point, The Truman Show, a script that was considered brilliant but unmakeable for years. Andrew Nicol's original script, which took place in an edgy futuristic fake Manhattan, did not clue the audience in from the outset on Truman's situation, but made them work it out for themselves. When it was finally sold for several million dollars, the first thing that was done was a rewrite designed to frontload all the information that some studio airhead figured would be just too doggone hard for those salt-of-the-earth types in Kansas, in Buffalo and Dubuque and Lincoln, to scry out on their own. Yet although it had no studio backing, Memento has as of this date the highest per-theater average earnings of any film in current release. And the reason for this is that instead of pandering to the audience, it challenges them; it gives them something to think about rather than stuffing them full of starchy treats and inducing a two-hour coma. Another debut film of remarkable quality is the Mexican entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Amores Perros (Love's a Bitch), which interweaves three stories concerning three pairs of men and women (one hesitates to call them couples) living in Mexico City with their assorted dogs (animal lovers be warned—though no dogs were harmed during the making of this film, lots and lots of dogs look very much as if they were harmed). Director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu's nonlinear style of narration has caused some to declare him the Mexican Tarantino, but that is damning with faint praise. Any similarity between Perros and Pulp Fictionis purely structural, for Inarritu is a realist. His characters are fully developed people with tooth decay, marital problems, and desperate needs, and not, say, cartoonish hit men who speak in word-balloon dialogue given a gloss of reality by healthy dollops of profanity.

The first arc, "Octavio and Susana," tells of a young man (Gael Garcia Bernal) living in the barrio, who has a crush on his sister-in-law Susana—she's married to his abusive brother Ramiro. In order to earn money with which to win her, Octavio enters the lower depths of the dogfighting world, utilizing the ferocious family pet to good advantage. Meanwhile, in "Daniel and Valeria," a successful editor dumps his wife and family to live in a new apartment with a neurotic supermodel and her lap dog. When the dog vanishes into a rat-infested hole in the floor of the apartment and refuses to come out, the story descends into the darkest of dark comedies. In "El Chivo and Maru," one of Mexico's most respected actors, Emilio Echevarr�a inhabits the role of El Chivo, an ex-revolutionary/ex-con turned hitman who wanders the streets of Mexico City in the guise of a homeless person, pushing a cart full of junk, and lives in a rundown house along with several dogs. He is haunted by the memory of the family he abandoned, especially by that of his daughter whom he has not seen since she was two. When he receives a commission to assassinate a philandering businessman, he seizes this opportunity both to redefine his life and to make a gesture of reconciliation with his daughter.

At two and half hours, the movie checks in a bit long for my tastes—I thought a few minutes could have been chopped out of the second story—and Inarritu's use of symbols is a touch hamfisted at times; but these are quibbles, and all three threads ultimately are united in what must be countenanced an epic vision of contemporary Mexico, the characters brought together by a single violent event on the city's streets. One remarkable thing about this unity is the stylistic disparity utilized by Inarritu to narrate the three stories—during "Octavio and Susana," his camera work has the sure-handed agitation of a Dogma filmmaker such as Lars Von Trier, whereas in "Daniel and Valeria," he opts for a considerably more static viewpoint. Despite this, the seams are barely noticeable, and this speaks not only to Inarritu's technical virtuosity, but to his skill at intermingling his themes so that the viewer's mind accommodates the shifting camera styles with little or no difficulty.

Two other debut films that are unlikely to be be showing up at your local multiplex, but are worth seeking out wherever they are playing, are Eduard Valli's Himalaya and Australian Anthony Dominick's Chopper. Valli, a world-renowned photographer who has lived for the last two decades in the Dolpo region of Tibet, has created a Nepalese version of an old Howard Hawks western, focusing on a cattle drive (make that a yak drive) during which a young herdsman challenges the authority of the chief herdsman. The simplicity and innocence of the story are lent a powerful universality by the breathtaking mountains that give the film its name. Valli's camera caresses the landscape and lovingly establishes the majesty of this seemingly timeless place and causes one to understand why the Himalayas have been considered gods by those who live in their shadows. If after seeing this film you do not leave the theater at least contemplating a trip to Nepal and Tibet, then you must have been sitting in the back row with your head in a glue-impregnated paper sack. Valli's record of the great sweep of hills and valleys and peaks of the region has more in common with music, with the glories of Handel and Bach, than it does with any cinematic analogue. Put simply, this is a beautiful and emotionally satisfying film such as has not been made by an American director for nearly half a century.

Chopper relates the true (purportedly) story of Mark "Chopper" Read, Australia's most notorious modern-day criminal, who claims to have murdered fifteen people (maybe) and has gone on to become one of that country's biggest best-selling authors. Dominick for the most part steers clear of flashy camera work; he is wise enough to stand back and let his star, comedian Eric Bana, do most of the the heavy lifting. Bana's performance as Read, starting out as a wild Tasmanian lad and ending as a tattooed, earless maniac, is by turns scary, funny, and—strangely enough—somewhat sympathetic. It's hard to imagine there will be a better performance on film this year, and while Dominick's understated direction is not as pyrotechnic as those of Inarritu and Nolan, it's evident that he has made some wonderful choices throughout and is largely responsible for getting this superb performance out of Bana.

Of the four directors mentioned herein, two have already signed Hollywood contracts, and it's likely that Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu will soon follow suit. Only Eduard Valli is liable to remain unsigned, as he appears content with his life in Tibet. What this means is there's an excellent chance that Memento, Amores Perros, and Chopper will be, respectively, the last interesting films made by Nolan, Innaritu, and Dominick. Hollywood studios have a long and unfortunate history of gobbling up young talented directors and either transforming them into hacks or tying them up with unmakeable projects in order to keep them from signing with anyone else. Darren Aronovsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) has been attached to Batman Beyond. James Mangold, director of the acclaimed indie flick Heavy, has since directed two massive turkeys, Copland and Girl, Interrupted. Nick Gomez (from Laws of Gravity to Drowning Mona), Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy to Finding Forester), Gregorio Nava (El Norte to Selena), Mary Herron (I Shot Andy Warhol to American Psycho), Jocelyn Morehouse and P.J. Hogan (Proof to My Best Friend's Wedding), Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors to Mulholland Falls), Vincent Ward (The Navigator to What Dreams May Come), Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock to Green Card), Peter Jackson (Heavenly Creatures to The Frighteners and a string of movies considered too horrible for release) . . . The list of those who have been willingly sucked into the maw of the Hollywood machine and drained of their talent verges on the endless. The entire notion of the indie film has been co-opted. Now most young directors consider their fledgling work to be a job application, a ticket to the big time. Rarely these days does a good indie director make more than one worthwhile movie before being drafted into the soul-less ranks of the spielbergers and the zemeckiis.

Perhaps it's human nature to go for the loot no matter the sacrifice; nonetheless it's sad to see the not-so-ancient but honorable tradition of the outlaw filmmaker become no more than a farm system for the most venal and brain-dead edifice of American industry. Soon the drunken tides of summer will blow chunks over the multiplexes, disgorging a stew of unappetizing green sobber in which float wads of Travoltaesque blandness and other uncured slabs of American ham, enough video-game violence and wiseass dialog and CGI monsters to satisfy a billion morons . . . So come on! Dip yourself a bowlful, drunk deep and get stupified. But if you're in the mood for something different, check out the four films mentioned herein, and you might just get a clue as to what movies might have been.