Volume 4, Number 41
This Week's Reviews: The Rules of Attraction, Spirited Away, Secretary.
This Week's Omissions: Brown Sugar, The Chateau, Knockaround Guys, The Transporter, White Oleander.
Requiem for a Dream
|The Rules of Attraction
BY: DAVID PERRY
Bret Easton Ellis is not a writer who can easily be marginalized: his works seem to be created if only to confound. But reading his prose becomes just as entrancing as the stories themselves -- his novelty somehow adds to the stories instead of eclipsing them.
His creations are never those of nobility -- his dystopia of drugs, sex, and pop-culture seems to relish in its own level of debasement. Many critics have accused him of looking voyeuristically at human nature's worst side, never even imagining a world of good. And, in many ways, its refreshing to see someone who feels like this: his cynicism comes with a knee-jerk profundity and a wicked wit. No modern author can be simultaneously disturbing and commanding.
Part of the reason that Ellis' biggest titles -- American Psycho, Less than Zero, Glamorama, and The Rules of Attraction -- remain so engrossing is that they do happily wallow in the worst side of our society. On college campuses, where sociology and philosophy classes are teaching of these sordid peoples, his name is almost as recognized as J.D. Salinger. While most older cultural/literary critics rebuff his works as little more than negligent disparagement, the young intelligentsia has already embraced him as the only modern author who can intelligently speak for them.
Ellis' 1987 novel The Rules of Attraction probably wouldn't have seen the light of day as a film had American Psycho not found a cult following after its cinematic debut two years ago despite the fact that director/writer Roger Avery has been attempting to get this book into production for many years. Even Avery's Academy Award for co-writing Pulp Fiction could not help get this project off the ground -- only the support of a small enclave of Patrick Bateman fans.
The film begins auspiciously enough with a 15-minute montage of stories going forward and backward and constantly crossing. Three characters dominate the screen with their own stories while Avery and editor Sharon Rutter seamlessly show their corresponding follies. It's "The End of the World Party" and the film's lack of temporal coherence helps to convince the audience that this title might in fact be true.
"I just get the feeling my life lacks forward momentum," says Paul Denton (Somerhalder), a gay student at the upper crust New England university of Camden. His introduction, though, is an intentional affront to those very words: initially his conversation is played backwards, part of a rewind from the story that has just finished.
That story is one of Lauren Hynde (Sossamon), a smart young co-ed trying desperately to make sense of her virginal decisions. She has spent the entire Fall semester pining over the vacationing Victor (Pardue; whose European holiday is told in a tour-de-force 5-minute montage that looks like a vacation slideshow gone horribly awry) and listening to the sexual exploits of her promiscuous roommate Lara (Biel). In the opening of the film, though, she decides to finally give up her vow of chastity waiting for Victor -- a decision she soon learns to be a mistake.
All along, there's the presence of Sean Bateman (Van Der Beek), brother to American Psycho's Patrick Bateman and two-bit drug dealer to Camden's partying populace. His shallowness seems to be his fondest attribute -- a fact that is established immediately as he takes a young girl on Ecstasy to his room only to find the trouble inherent in sober sex. For once in his life, though, he loves someone and has someone loving him -- too bad they are not the same person. In the past semester, he has somehow found an attraction to Lauren; meanwhile, Paul has grown an attraction to Sean under the false pretense of homosexuality.
The existentialism runs wide and deep in the film as Avery attempts to represent Ellis' unbridled realities in a series of cinematic contraptions that are as festive for the eyes as they are paramount to the story. The film's backward opening is, without a doubt, the centerpiece of the entire film, but more impressively is an unexpected suicide sequence in the middle of the film. Never has a suicide seemed more realistic -- the camera remains fixed on the face of the dying and the audience begins to share the pain. We are left to cringe at the pain of watching someone die, not through gore but through expression.
The most common accusation made against the film is that
none of the characters are the least bit likable. In truth, this criticism cannot be
disregarded -- for the most part, these callow, puerile, and prickly characters are doing
things that cannot be completely defended. More importantly, though, is the fact that
these superficial caricatures are thinly veiled creations of our darkest sides. It would
be easy for me to act disgusted by everything these people do, but they are exactly what I
am like at my worst times. Ellis seems to be inviting the audience to decry these people,
only to then remind us that we are scrutinizing ourselves.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
BY: DAVID PERRY
For some time David Lynch and Luis Buñuel have been locked into the positions of the greatest filmmakers of the human psyche. Their movies often transcend the simple confines on celluloid by delving far into the mind, glancing and reacting to every hideous thing wallowing in our minds.
Having recently experienced three films from Hayao Miyazaki, though, I'm ready to nominate another name to this list. Miyazaki has been an animator in Japan for nearly forty years, animating films that are, for lack of a better word, breathtaking. And yet he's only been a major force in America for a decade, suddenly coming to the fore with My Neighbor Totoro. That film, which has somehow remained out of my grasp -- but not for long -- helped to bring his later films to major American cities.
Odd, though, is the fact that Miyazaki's biggest support in America comes from the conglomerate that most represents the antithesis of Miyazaki's films. Kiki's Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, and now Spirited Away have all been released in America under the Disney banner. That's right, Miyazaki's anti-corporate, environmentalist, rule-breaking cinema comes to U.S. malls from the same company behind the sugarcoating of Tarzan and Pocahontas.
I have been a supporter of some of Disney's most recent works -- Lilo and Stitch and Monsters, Inc. especially -- but see something ethereally wonderful about Miyazaki's films that are somehow gone from Disney's paper-thin tales. The fabled days of Pinocchio and Snow White are gone in lieu of the heady middle ground works of Eisner's Disney (as opposed to Walt's) -- the only beneficial by-product of this recent move to higher technology is that those early masterworks are now available on DVD.
Spirited Away is, in many cases, such an amazing film because it comes from the same wavelength of Walt Disney's creative process. The Disney of today does not have a deer mother dying, children changing into donkeys, or death by apples. The Grimm Fairy Tales are, perhaps, too grim for Eisner's Disney to touch, creating a sweetened side to Disney that was thankfully absent from most of the early films.
Miyazaki, on the other hand, welcomes the unhappy animation elements that Disney used so well. He understands that part of the natural progression of a fictional character comes from some elements of pathos. Had Bambi's mother not died, would we be as interested in his plight? The last non-Pixar masterpiece from the Mousehouse was Beauty and the Beast, the only recent film to have any bite (no pun intended).
Just look at the first scenes of Spirited Away: a small girl, Chihiro (Chase) is distraught over her family's impending relocation. Whining, she imbues the childish frustration of a 10-year-old through her inability to accept anything her parents do, especially as they try to console her. Of course, we see her at her most accurate moment, as she tries to convince her parents not to take a side road or to enter the building sitting at the end of the road. They enter anyway and she, whining all the while, follows. They find what seems to be an abandoned amusement park. Before long, though, the two adults are filling their faces with the free food sitting at one stand. Chihiro wanders off, runs into a boy who warns her of the imminent arrival of all the spirits, and returns to find her gluttonous parents are now huge hogs.
And this is only in the first twenty minutes of Miyazaki's exasperating tale. Like Michael Ende's The Neverending Story or Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, this is a work so commanding in its imaginativeness that it seems to be straight from the mind of a child. Spirited Away comes from the id of Miyazaki, the dormant side that one would not expect from a 61-year-old filmmaker. Most importantly, as a creation of such a puerile mind, it never looks down on the story, the characters, or the audience. Even when there is a giant baby morphing into a chubby mouse, the film seems at peace with its evident silliness.
And yet no one leaving a film like Spirited Away would be tempted to call the film silly. The story tells of one girl learning from her experiences -- albeit odd ones -- that she can subsist without someone else to lean on. It is a great look at self-reliance, a chance encounter with the life's lesson that every kid finally learns when he or she hits adulthood. It is an amazing look into the quiescent imagination of a child; a gracious chance to return to the childhood when we too were whining about the car ride going too long and the experiences that have brought us to our current state.
How is it that Michael Eisner is releasing this?
The Good Girl
Kissing Jessica Stein
The Piano Teacher
BY: DAVID PERRY
There have been few films dealing seriously with the idea of a sadomasochistic relationship. This alternative form of sexual pleasure is more likely to be seen as a joke in a film like Exit to Eden than dealt with realistically in a film like The Night Porter. The latter film was an especially controversial work in its frank portrayal of such a relationship -- but, of course, what can one expect for a film about a concentration camp survivor entering into a relationship with her former camp guard?
Steven Shainberg's Secretary may not take such a heavy pretense to build its S&M frenzy, but that does not discredit it. Instead, his work is about a lighter association that is almost as destitute: the life of a businessman and his secretary.
Shainberg opens the film with his protagonist, Lee Holloway (Gyllenhaal), leaving her mental institution home after finally being found competent for normal life. She spent years abusing herself with cuts and burns, finding a sexual excitement in the masochistic tendencies. Coming back home, though, is not necessarily a pleasant return: her smoothing mother (Warren) locks up the knives, her picture perfect sister (Tuck) gets married, and her alcoholic father (McHattie) picks up the bottle again.
The self-abuse seems ready to resume when Lee finally finds a place to take her away from the doldrums of her life. Taking a few secretarial classes at a local college, she begins to look for jobs in the clerical field. A classifieds ad sends her to the office of lawyer E. Edward Grey (Spader), a perfectionist who pushes crying secretaries out his door before turning on an illuminated "Help Wanted" sign that looks like a hotel's "Vacancy" sign. Seeing something in her clerical skills (or perhaps in her naïveté), Grey unblinkingly takes her in.
As one might discern from his dismissal of the previous secretary, Grey is something of a sadist. He may not admit it, but he gets some pleasure out of abusing these women he hires as assistants (the film attempts to rationalize his actions as a reaction to his failed marriage). Much like Isabelle Huppert in Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher earlier this year, Grey derives this pleasure through something so insulting that it becomes impossible to misconstrue his feelings. As he berates Lee for every typing error (he doesn't allow computers into his antique filled office), his demeanor takes an odd, lively shape.
Thus, it is perfect that a masochist like Lee should come to work for such a sadist, right? Well, there are always complications to what should be kismet. While Lee loves the abuse (which begins as simply circling every typo with a bright red pen before leading to full-fledged spanking), Grey becomes uncertain of the feelings it's generating. In his own mind, he is perfectly normal but what he's doing is not. This emotional epiphany is never dealt with directly in the film, only in James Spader's top-notch performance, where the levels of emotion are changed by the actor for every sensation he mutedly shows.
While Spader is trying his best to disguise his feelings, Maggie Gyllenhaal gets to exhibit them with pride. Her performance is just the right mark, never straying into outlandishness but certainly always brought with some levity. Gyllenhaal is not necessarily a classic beauty, but her soft, cherubic features make an odd impression on the audience considering the abnormal fetishes her character desires.
There are many thematic problems that plague Secretary
throughout, but its society-be-damned attitude gives it a welcome insouciance. Where
Michael Haneke was just as guilty of sadism as his protagonist in The Piano Teacher,
Steven Shainberg, with his quirky compassion but perpetual voyeurism, seems happier as an