Archive for the ‘1990s’ Category
Of all the scenes that comprise this incredible performance by Nick Nolte, the ones that affected me the most and burrowed the deepest under my skin to give me chills were those between his small-town cop Wade Whitehouse and his young, quasi-estranged daughter. We meet them in the car as he has her for a limited time over his ex-wife, driving to a Halloween school function. As he consistently tries to convince her to go to this school, and later tries harder and harder to ingratiate himself with her, he doesn’t quite become overtly hostile, but nevertheless, something is very wrong with this man and his behavior. He seems far too desperate to get on his daughter’s good side and be a cool dad, or a loving dad, a task that proves hopeless, particularly in a late, disturbing scene in a café in which he snuggles up to her and baby-talks her as if she’s a toddler (before he assaults the proprietor, but that’s a whole other matter of a movie’s worth of plot development…). This poor girl must bear the brunt of this woefully damaged man who’s trying desperately to compensate for his crippling insecurities and emotional scars. Something bad happened to Wade in his past, something that’s now making him scramble, in cringingly exaggerated fashion, to be a good man, or convince himself that he’s a good man, or give off the facade of a good man. He’s in the fight of his life to, if not be someone he’s not, then to not become a figure he knows too well. He’s an ideal addition to Paul Schrader’s long line of insecure, self-loathing anti-protagonists from Travis Bickle to Jake LaMotta to Yukio Mishima to John LeTour to Jesus Christ.
As it turns out, he’s trying to be the father that his father wasn’t. As played by James Coburn in an Oscar-winning role, Wade’s father Glen is a drunk and a brute who gets off on inflicting as much physical and emotional abuse as possible on his wife and children, and you can see how any son would try to emotionally divorce himself from such a monster. Ultimately, however, Wade cannot. It’s just a shame that Schrader relied on clichéd spousal/child abuse-centric flashbacks to introduce us to Glen and his cruelty and the clear reason for Wade’s present-day flaws. Watch Nolte and Coburn act together in this film, watch their pitch-perfect, terrifying chemistry (or whatever you would call the polar opposite of “chemistry”), and you’ll see how those flashbacks are simply not needed to get a full sense of how Glen has ruled over his son for decades and inflicted permanent and cruel psychological harm. A health care professional could have a field day simply watching these two characters interact, in scenes that are as subtle and complex as those flashbacks are unoriginal and over-the-top. For better or worse (much worse…), Glen is the most important figure in Wade’s life – not his incredibly patient girlfriend Margie (Sissy Spacek), not his quiet and measured brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe). Wade will try to separate himself from his tyrannical father, sure, whether through his daughter or through investigating the suspicious accidental hunting death that rocks his quiet town. As the details of this case envelop the plot of the film overall, the speculations over the “accident” and the possible motives of possible murders concerning Real Estate and what-not, the movie started to lose me, as Wade gets lost in the case. I suppose this is the point, that Wade so fully immerses himself in this one maybe-crime to dull decades of emotional pain, to dull the Glen inside him, to feel like a semi-important, semi-useful man rather than the mostly-useless man-child his father has made of him, that the details of the case become so complex and nonsensical and out of control as Wade becomes more obsessed, but I dunno, a little too much focus on this formulaic mystery and not enough on how it affects Wade.
Of course, we eventually learn that the mystery isn’t so formulaic after all, via Rolfe’s narration (an unexpectedly weak moment in the narration, by the way, explaining everything like in that intelligence-insulting final scene in “Psycho”, when in fact the true nature of the death, and by extension Wade’s mindset, are rather obvious long before the story’s tragic conclusion) – narration that was excellent, as Rolfe’s detached, monotone voice contains the slightest hint of distaste and he acts as the audience’s stand-in, judging the sad players of this tale with both pity and scorn. I actually wish it was used more than it was. The differences between the two brothers, raised by the same monster, are downright alarming. Rolfe somehow found the ability to get the fuck out of dodge, while Wade, try as he might, cannot (at least until an infected tooth and a can of gasoline have their say) escape this vortex of nature and nurture, cannot draw himself away from this dance with the monster who begat him.
It was very refreshing to see a “vampire movie” (emphasis on the ” “) that didn’t have fangs, or neck-biting, or seductive and beautiful ever-young people, and was largely devoid of cliché of the vampire variety of otherwise, which by now I’ve come to expect from the largely unique and cliché-free Guillermo del Toro (shame he dropped out of “The Hobbit.” That would’ve been cool ). Not since “Nosferatu” perhaps has a vampire film really, really focused on what a curse, not a blessing, it would be to be granted immortality by unnatural means. As the kindly old antique shopkeeper Jesus Gris becomes more and more immortal after being ‘bitten’ by the Cronos device, his thirst for blood at a most inopportune time during a black-tie New Years’ party and being chased by a dying, despicable industrialist and his bumbling nephew/henchman (Ron Perlman is one ugly motherfucker…) are the least of his worries. As his skin rots and falls off, his wife and everyone else in the world except his mute and adoring granddaughter believe him to be dead, and sunlight becomes poison, it becomes obvious to both Jesus and us just what a curse this is. He never asked for this fate when he found that metal scarab inside the statue in his shop, and yet here he is. That he, a good and previously unassuming man, must suffer everlasting youth in mind but certainly not in body, and not the greedy industrialist and now Jesus’s mortal enemy who certainly deserves such a fate, brings out the tragic aspects of that kind of immortality that much more, in that our sympathy is added on to the gruesome bodily decay. That del Toro pits old man against old man (hardly an expected protagonist-antagonist pairing in this day and age of fantasy/horror), uses a scene of a flamboyant mortician proudly dolling up a mangled body in stark detail for comic relief, and doesn’t exactly depict Jesus as the most innocent of victims, as he in fact revels in using the violent Cronos device for a time, certainly make this one more unique than you might think. When you consider the idea of the body wanting to die and the brain just not cooperating with that desire, there may be a fate worse than death after all.
The plot – namely Karol’s rise from the gutter to prominence seemingly at the snap of a finger and his revenge (a nice and refreshing surprise of a plot twist, I must admit) going down without a hitch – is completely and utterly implausible and ridiculous, but somehow Kieslowski makes it work by doing what I guess you could call deadpan directing. Even though Karol gets shit on by a bird, is sexually humiliated on the phone by his ex-wife, is smuggled into Poland in a suitcase and gets kidnapped by mobsters while still in said suitcase, and wears a suit and slicks his hair back Pat Riley style to try to act all suave and sophisticated when he comes into money, Kieslowski never plays it up for straight-up laughs. I wouldn’t even call it a dark comedy per se, but just a series of unfortunate events for an impotent, suddenly-homeless hairdresser whose completely implausible adventures are presented about as realistically as you could hope for, with even a hint of moving pathos when it comes to his relationship with a well-dressed, well-spoken, suicidal man who takes him under his wing (there was just something truly special about Janusz Gajos’s performance as Karol’s benefactor Milolaj that I can’t quite put my finger on – probably has something to do with how his noble, almost fatherly deadpan style fits with Karol’s (Zbigniew Zamachowski) almost effeminate, but endearing and sympathetic patheticness, like a glove). Morbidly funny, deeply ironic and cynical, and admittedly unpredictable, “White” was a nice change of pace from the unbearably heavy likes of “Blue” and “The Double Life of Veronique” (both of which were very good films in their own right, and probably ‘better’ than this film, but even with the same director at the helm, it’s like comparing apples and oranges that came from the same fruit basket) – refreshingly light fare, this was, or at least as close to ‘light’ as you can get when it comes to Kieslowski.
Apple microwave, blanket picture frame. Refrigerator thimble. Pillow microwave, duplicitous mirror, Staten Island Ferry pap smear. Space heater hard drive, coke, Alabama Citibank. Cocker spaniel nerve gas, Blu-ray borscht, entertaining jambalaya, diarrhea-laden music box!
Santa Claus file cabinet.
Subterranean glaucoma, antidisestablishmenttarianism. Tone-deaf tassel, promiscuous sphincter, dinner plate phlegm. Chardonnay hamburger, fender-bender menopause. Eggo waffles sodomy. Calculator porcupine, afterbirth stopwatch, Flava Flav synogogue. Envelope Antietam, Mittelschmerz poo poo platter. Aorta teletubbies.
Mozambique corned beef sandwiches. Sterling silver scrotum, Ophelia. Propeller plane haz-mat suit, surreptitious revolver. Vanilla cardboard, paper shredder bicycle, Captain Condoleezza Rice’s Mandolin. Encyclopedia Satanica water heater, respirator pogo stick. Rockclimbing titmouse, transgendered craps table. Rhombus.
Pepperoni pizza toilet paper (Hattie McDaniel…). Lovelorn tapeworm, cross-dressing Duplo blocks, cholesterol foul pole. 8-track Beelzebub, dirty sanchez terrorist, cunnilingus speedboat, descended testicle bedspread. Stock market apple core, Orville Redenbacher trench warfare. Slalom, Punky Brewster? Perilous coroner ink cartridge vestibule Happy Days rat salesman Rashomon flabby chest tender saltmine feral…Zuul.
Tepid yet slightly hesitant praise.
A spraawwwllliinngg tale centered around a Texas sheriff’s investigating the apparent murder of a wicked predecessor forty years before, and an examination of pretty much everyone directly and indirectly affected by it, both in the past and in the present. Too sprawling at times? Yeah, I guess it gets muddled in subplot after subplot, some of which it’s tough to find a connection between even after the credits roll. But really, it’s only tough to follow in the beginning – you’ll get used to it once you get to know the many, many characters and their stories, most of which feel pretty genuine, like they really have been living amongst each other in that small town for years before we meet them (except for Frances McDormand in an inexplicably quirky and over the top, one-scene performance that seems like it’s from another film entirely. Clearly that other performance of hers in 1996 outdid this one by miles 😉 ). The investigation is the lynchpin around which the rest of the plot revolves, but clearly the theme’s supposed to be the complicated race relations in a place like this small Texas town, particularly between the whites, blacks, and latinos. Sometimes Sayles emphasizes that too much and “Lone Star” turns into too much of a lecture on race, as everyone stops to discuss what should be taught in a history class, or the history of intermarrying blacks and Native Americans, etc. (a subplot involving a bar fight between soldiers and the implications of that at the nearby Army base felt utterly superfluous other than to further emphasize the difficulties that minorities must deal with), but overall it just added flavor to an already-dynamic time in place, and something to stew over once the mystery is solved (a mystery that takes a page from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’s” book that the legend is often more important than the fact). Sayles’s screenplay impressively weaves past and present pretty effortlessly, the flashbacks dominated by the presence Kris Kristofferson, sadistic and pure evil as the sheriff who goes missing and who made many enemies . The seamless, uncut transitions between present and flashback, mostly done thanks to no more than a camera pan, are a little gimmicky and Boondock Saints-ish, but still, the flashbacks start to answer our questions as the story and mystery progresses, yet and the same time only begin to reveal how past influences present, and how little has changed when it comes to the complicated issue of race. I was more interested in the individual relationships themselves than some overarching theme about how those relationships are a metaphor for race relations and all that – in particular, the rekindling of a romance between Chris Cooper’s sheriff investigating the decades-old mystery and Elizabeth Peña as the woman he loved, but was forbidden to love, when they were teenagers. They’re the two most ‘real’ characters in the film, from their awkward but truly affectionate by jukebox in her mother’s restaurant re-courtship to Cooper’s Sheriff Deeds’s quiet persistence in investigating an ice-cold case, tracking down financial records and questioning a series of shady characters forty years after the fact – a film noir in the bright sunshine of Texas. This was quite a fun little rubik’s cube of a sprawling mystery, and a tapestry of interconnected people and events, all of which, following some MASSIVE build-up and development of character after character, makes cruelly underwhelming sense by the end, and it shouldn’t be any other way.
“My Darling Clementine” is already my all-time favorite movie, and in my eyes flawless – but just imagine what it would be like if Val Kilmer’s attention-grabbing (to say the least) performance as Doc Holliday in “Tombstone” were transposed into “Clementine” to replace the more nondescript Victor Mature! It would be an utter disaster, as Kilmer’s semi-manic performance and John Ford’s meditative masterpiece would go together like a slug and a salt shaker, but boy would it be a sight to see regardless, like one of those horrific car wrecks you can’t help but stare at 😛 . “Clementine” and “Tombstone” both concern the shootout between the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday and the Clanton gang, but are vastly different, both in quality and in tone. “Clementine” is slow and mournful, and while Victor Mature doesn’t exactly give a great performance, it’s brooding and fits the mood of the film perfectly, and that’s why I identified with the self-loathing, Consumption-ridden gambler/gunslinger so strongly. “Tombstone” is much more of a straight-up genre picture, with the more predictable plot paths and archetypal performances, highlighted by the conflict between the prototypically virtuous lawman Wyatt Earp, with just a hint of revenge-mindedness and the vicious wild animals that are the cowboys. But Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday really is something else. He’s dying of Consumption, looks like shit from the moment we meet him, has that slightly effeminate accent, the remarkable skill with a handgun, and a foolish knack for inciting the ire of cowboys and nearly getting himself killed again and again that can almost be mistaken for bravery. Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday might be more cartoonish and attention-grabbing than Victor Mature’s, but boy does he nail the persona of charismatic Western antihero. His performance is far and away the best thing about “Tombstone”…it’s just too bad he’s woefully underused in favor of Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp. Russell does a good enough job as the morally upright lawman, but without more of Kilmer’s enigmatic Doc Holliday and the two men’s unlikely friendship, it’s just one more lackluster element of a solid if not lackluster Western. The gunfights themselves are spectacular and some of the best I’ve seen in any Western: quick, brutal, chaotic, and in extremely close quarters – probably how the real gunfight at the O.K. Corral went down – but otherwise the story is a collection of predictability and clichés, right down to Wyatt’s muse-like love interest, overwrought death speeches, full emotional breakdowns in the middle of the pouring rain, cowboy-hunting montages, and basic character archetypes. It’s your basic genre picture, with some excitement but light on depth, with one great yet underutilized performance to save it from clichéd Western oblivion – which is fine, and I enjoyed it enough, but tossed it aside afterwards. “Tombstone” summarizes the events surrounding the shootout at the O.K. Corral, but a film like “Clementine” turns that 30 second free-for-all into the stuff of good-versus-evil, chaos-versus-order, lawlessness-versus-civilization myth and legend.
Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967)
“I want my 93 grand.”
God bless Lee Marvin.
The Limey (Steven Soderbergh, 1999)
Jeez, so it’s Soderbergh doing his Boorman-directing-Point Blank-but-on-acid impression. This is pretty much everything that “Point Blank” was, but more exaggerated. Terrence Stamp’s thug is even more exaggeratedly badass than Point Blank’s Lee Marvin (this time going on a violent crusade seeking revenge for his daughter’s death rather than the inexplicably simple goal of simply retrieving some money) – almost comically serious with the occasional spurts of (business-like) English profanity, but still awesome (though Lee Marvin’s quiet, goal-obsessed stoicism in and of itself can certainly be called exaggerated). Soderbergh makes extensive use of flashbacks, flash-forwards, and every flash in-between. Often the flashes are silent, sudden and jarring, with dialogue from the scene we’re watching acting as the only background noise to these sudden new images (showing us disjointed moments ranging from Wilson’s youth to his daughter on the beach to that conversation he had with this daughter’s friend in the car just a few minutes before), and the flash-forwards acting as instant dream or deja vu-like snippets of moments the narrative is yet to catch up to (I had quite a few “oh, yeah!” moments when this scene or that reprised seemingly random images from minutes before). “Point Blank” did the same thing, but there it seemed more natural and in-the-moment and genuinely felt like random snippets of memory were entering Lee Marvin’s head at any given moment. Here, Soderbergh’s much more liberal with those stylistic flourishes – sometimes distracting, but still an interesting touch. You’ve got those, you’ve got the jump cuts, the snappy dialogue, Peter Fonda at his corrupt music mogul sleaziest, sudden bursts of violence (many of those nearly off-screen or at least well in the distance), that just plain cool vibe throughout (Fonda’s house, man…), and yes, moments that do make “The Limey” a cut-rate thriller, and it’s like Soderbergh is Dr. Frankenstein, trying to combine the styles of Boorman and Jean-Luc Godard to create his own special monster. I preferred “Point Blank’s” cult exercise in coolness, mainly because Lee Marvin’s performance was just out of this world, making quite the interesting climb up the corporate ladder if you will (even I was as disbelieving and skeptical as the shady higher-ups of The Organization that Lee Marvin’s Walker goes on the bloody crusade he goes on just for $93,000), but still, Steven Soderbergh’s exercise in shameless stylistic self-indulgence had me entertained 🙂
In its scant 90+ minute running time, “Baraka” manages to do what even the most heartfelt screenplay and reflective, reality-based work of fiction cannot: it shows us the world. Well, obviously a 90 minute documentary/visual essay film showing random images of people and places in locales both modern and exotic is gonna show you the world, but “Baraka” does more than that. In combining some of the most breathtaking moving images any movie could ask for (via a special widescreen technique that Ron Fricke designed specifically for this film) with innovative editing and a soundtrack about as incredible as the images, these images of the world combine to live and breathe. We don’t just see every the world of “Baraka”, we feel it – we feel its history, its evolution (or de-evolution), its soul. We’re shown similarities and differences between customs of those in the city and those in the wild, between mother nature in a junkyard and mother nature in the most awe-inspiring mountain/jungle regions in the world, between architecture of the ancient and architecture the modern, between behavior of humans and behavior of animals. There’s a method to Ron Fricke’s madness, because when you pay attention to how these images are cobbled together, how one image is followed by another that’s at least somewhat similar in tone, shape, basic theme, or what have you, you’ll see that they’re not so random after all.
Consider these three images:
In the first, this monkey is regarded for at least a minute or two. In any movie, let alone a plotless, dialogue-free essay film, a minute or two is an eternity, but the camera focuses on this monkey not a moment too long, and it’s all because of that face. I’m not gonna claim to know what a monkey is a thinking, but what I do know is that it’s giving perhaps as much of a melancholy, contemplative, and knowing face as any human would. You combine that with the haunting, meditative musical score of that particular scene early in the film, and all of a sudden this monkey in the water is carrying the weight of the Primate order and the entire natural world around it, and hell, it could be contemplating the starry, eclipse-containing cosmos as seen in the next few shots for all we know. And then later, we come to this disturbing, ghost-white man as he slowly looks up and lets out an agonizing scream towards the heavens – except we don’t hear that scream. In one of the most brilliant moments of an already brilliant soundtrack, that scream is replaced with the sounds of all the grotesqueries of modern society – car horns, alarms, engines, every aspect of today’s sound pollution. Now granted, those two images come rather far apart in the film, but the connection is still there. If that monkey is expressing deep rumination over how the world has changed, then the man turns that rumination into rage, into a head-on collision between nature of old and the technology of now.
And the third image? Well, I just thought it was really, really cool, and scared the hell out of me when this guy just popped up all of a sudden 😛 .
If there’s any ‘message’ to take out of “Baraka,” it revolves around that ever-changing world, that impact between old and new, antiquated and modern, spiritual and technological. I mean, if this image doesn’t tell you that, I don’t know what does:
So much of “Baraka”‘s power comes not just in how breathtaking the images are, but in how they’re arranged and edited together, and how they’re related. Consider this fascinating religious ritual:
The arrangement and choreography of this ceremony is remarkable – how fifty men know when to lie on their backs while fifty more simultaneously face them, arms waving, all moving in unison, and then the two groups switching on a dime, in perfect synchronicity. The chanting is fast, lively, exciting, and in perfect harmony – a truly spiritual experience. And then juxtapose that with a later fast-motion shot of a busy and crowded Grand Central Station. Two busy images filled to the brim with motion in two completely different contexts. I won’t just come out and say that the film blatantly sides itself with the more natural world, I’d like to think it’s more complex than that, but boy, that Grand Central Station scene seem a hell of a lot more artificial and robotic than the fluid and uniform, but infinitely more passionate, men in that religious ritual.
Comparisons of similarities/differences in other images are much more apparent, and the contrast between the old and new, ancient and modern, elegant and soulless are much easier to spot in other images, like so:
It’s not exactly subtle on Fricke’s part to show how the ancient pyramid of Giza that hasn’t been used for centuries is far more elegant and FAR less dilapidated and pathetic-looking than this horrendous housing complex that’s still used in the present, but it’s effective enough. But it’s not all about image. Lev Kuleshov taught us in the wee early years of cinema that the juxtaposition of one shot with another was vital to influencing the audience’s interpretation of those shots, but I think that “Baraka” proves that sound is now just as vital in influencing image interpretation. The music during the fast-motion images of the city is lively but somehow artificial, contributing to those scenes’ hectic but robotic feel. A later scene in an abandoned facility, maybe a hospital or prison, I wasn’t sure, features dank, grimy rooms and piles of skulls, juxtaposed with still images of forlorn faces – but it’s the sounds of sadness and agony within that scene that makes it truly frightening. A montage at a junkyard and in various slums, and how the people there lead their desolate existence, is supplemented with some of the most woeful music you’ve ever heard, so as a result, the scene is woeful. If the music in that montage were more lively, we’d see perseverance in these people instead of sorrow. And later, when we see perhaps hundreds of men and women washing themselves on the shore, laughing and enjoying each others’ company, the music has an air of hope that makes the scene joyful. If the music had been more introspective and solemn, as with the earlier scene of the monkey taking a similar bath, this scene of absolute joy would take on a much different tone. The editing and use of sound in “Baraka” is as impeccable as the astonishingly beautiful images of mountains, trees, ruins both ancient and modern, animals, and man, and the combination of all of these go a long way in showing how every element, every organism both living and dead, of this planet has an unspoken connection, and just how similar, and how different, a monkey taking a bath and a person taking a bath can be.
90 minutes is rather short by ‘normal’ movie standards, but for a movie like “Baraka,” 90 minutes might be stretching it a bit long. But even still, if you somehow zone out of “Baraka” for a minute or two, you’re still getting a hell of a lot out of it when you zone back in, simply because every single image is nothing short of breathtaking. The downside of that, of course, is that you might miss just how all of these sights and sounds connect, how one face or one structure graphically match-cuts into another, just how connected one person or culture can be with another, despite being separated by thousands of miles or thousands of years. Another essay film, Chris Marker’s “Sans soleil,” treaded similar ground, but didn’t gel with me primarily because of narration that I thought was dull at best, pretentious at worst. “Baraka” gelled with me in every way that “Sans soleil” didn’t because there was no narration to tell me how immensely complex and awe-inspiring the world is. I didn’t need to be told this – I could see it for myself. It makes perfect sense that ‘a blessing, or the breath, or the essence of life from which the evolutionary process unfolds’ is just one of many, possibly infinite, definitions throughout so many languages of the word “Baraka,” because really as a word it’s as indescribable as the nature of the world that the movie it’s named after is portraying. It’s an indescribable quality, encompassing every emotion, every mindset both sublime and forlorn – a quality we can just barely begin to comprehend when we look at so-called random images. The slow descent of a tree, the sound of snapping bark like a final death wail, is like the downfall of a stately king. A monk’s slow-motion ringing of a massive bell takes on the appearance of a Herculean effort to signal either the sad end of one era or the beginning of another. In the span of a few minutes, we’re treated to sweeping images of things ranging from the ruins of a lost civilization to a flock of thousands of birds above an immense forest, sunrise over the Australian outback, a fog-covered canyon and mountain range, and an extreme close-up of a lizard’s head, and it’s all bookended first by an eclipse, and finally a starry night. Just another ordinary day.
Whoa, melodrama overload! And then subliminal-esque quick editing overload! And then incomprehensible sneaky political talk overload! Hell, everything about “Nixon” is overload. Alright, maybe not as overloaded with randomness as “Natural Born Killers,” Oliver Stone’s most out-there film, but for sure, Stone went out of his way to make “Nixon” something unique. If you’re looking for the prototypical biopic, look elsewhere. “Nixon” is wildly uneven and a bizarre, bizarre film. It’s near-impossible to follow, is all over the place with Stone’s wide and inconsistent stylistic decisions, and is way, WAY too long at 3+ hours, but still has some fascinating stuff to dig out of it to make it worth a watch.
I’m no history buff. Everything I know about Watergate I learned from a quick browsing of the Wikipedia page. I can’t tell a Haldeman from an Ehrlichman, a Mitchel from a Zielger, a Haig from a Dean. These names, these crooked members of Nixon’s inner circle, mean nothing to me, nor do the ins and outs of a break in at the Watergate Hotel that led to the only Presidential resignation in American history. And after watching “Nixon,” I still don’t give a damn. For all I care, those Haldemans and Ehrlichmans were just Nixon’s sinister right hand men (led by a crewcut-sporting James Woods at his schemiest and sleaziest), the Cardinal Richelieus who eventually shape Nixon into the tragic disgrace he becomes. When this movie is right, it’s the portrait of a weak, uncertain man caught up in a swirl of corruption and bureaucracy (the “Beast” as he calls it), but when it’s off, it’s an incredibly inconsistent film with stylistic discrepancies that’re more distracting than anything. One moment you’ve got melodramatic Capra-esque scenes between Richard and Pat Nixon, the next Tricky Dick is giving his speech before the Republican Convention, the vast audience suddenly becoming the image of fireworks and explosions, the speech intercut with newsreel footage of the best and worst of Vietnam-era America (and I won’t even get into Bob Hoskins’ out-of-nowhere, eccentric turn as J. Edgar Hoover. That just made me scratch my head…). This is essentially two films in one: straight-up melodrama that tries (and mainly fails) to turn Nixon the caricature into Nixon the man (or even Nixon the tragic hero), and a mish-mash of subliminal images and quick editing that made “JFK” so great and “Natural Born Killers” so infuriating.
I hate most melodrama I see, and “Nixon” didn’t do anything to alleviate that. Those scenes of domestic disputes between Dick and Pat (played by Joan Allen in the exact kind of Oscar-bait performance that I can’t stand) are dull and clichéd – the virtuous wife trying to bring back from the brink of destruction the husband who’s lost himself in his lust for power. But it’s when Stone flashes back to Dick’s childhood (in black and white, no less), with his Quaker, uber-religious family and the loss of two brothers to illness – essentially tying all of Dick’s insecurities to a lousy childhood – when things are no longer just dull and clichéd, they’re downright insulting. Call me heartless or cynical, but wouldn’t you find it just a little disingenuous on Oliver Stone’s part to subliminally place the ghostly visage of Dick’s mother in the Lincoln Room, watching over her disgraced son as he erases those infamous 18 1/2 minutes from the surveillance tapes, or for Dick to flash back to images of the faces of the dead while he’s being hospitalized? Scenes of family-oriented melodrama prevented “JFK” from being a slam-dunk masterpiece, and similar scenes are “Nixon”‘s biggest folly.
Everything about “Nixon” is over-the-top: over-the-top with the melodramatic dialogue between President and First Lady, over-the-top with the flashy cinematography and editing, which tries to characterize the immediate world around Nixon as a swirling whirlpool of chaos. Hell, just look no further than one of the film’s first moments: a dark and stormy night, music as ominous as possible, as the camera regards the White House from behind an iron fence. You’d expect the suddenly-menacing 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to be Xanadu, and behind its walls were the lost soul of Charles Foster Kane, deep in thought. Some of it works and is even fascinating – sometimes when Nixon’s giving a rousing speech, you’re not sure if John Williams’ overly-bombastic score and the quick-cutting of inspiring/disheartening images is meant to be 100% sarcastic on Stone’s part, or at least somewhat genuine, and that’s the point. There’s points where this movie is dutch angle after dutch angle, dark color after ominous shadow, that just go out of their way to show you how skewed Nixon’s perspective is, and how lost he feels in this bizarre world he’s invented for himself – sometimes it works, sometimes it’s eye-rollingly over-the-top. But then you look at those bizarre but attention-grabbing stylistic flourishes that tell you that Stone wanted to make a unique art film out of the otherwise banal biopic genre, and then realize that they’re side-by-side with the exact kinds of scenes that define the banalities of the typical biopic, and you wonder exactly what Stone was going for. Throw some random shit from random genres and random conspiracy theories (not to the extent of “JFK,” but still..) into a blender, you’ve got “Nixon”: some signs of something worthwhile, but scattered in pieces that are held together with paper clips.
Given that, on any other day I’d call “Nixon” a failure that couldn’t live up to its potential, but one wild card saves it: Anthony Hopkins is so fucking great as Dick Nixon that I can’t help but recommend the movie. He’s great because he doesn’t try to emulate Richard Nixon’s famous mannerisms. If he did that, this movie would’ve been straight-up satire, and believe it or not, that’s not what the left-wing Oliver Stone was going for. Hopkins actually creates a pathetic (and empathetic), lost man who actually becomes something of a mythical and Shakespearean, hubris-marred figure (as Kissinger tells Nixon on his final night as President, “to be undone by a third-rate burglary is a fate of Biblical proportions.” Indeed). No, I didn’t see much Nixon in the Welsh Hopkins…but I didn’t see the increasingly-typecast Hopkins in the character, either. Nixon as film character becomes completely unique, and a compelling figure. Watch how he slouches and sweats during press conferences, or when he tries to exert his power while giving orders to his just-as-power hungry confidants in the Oval Office, or weeps next to an incredulous Kissinger (Paul Sorvino, understated and excellent as the soft-spoken, frog-throated Secretary of State) in the shadow-filled, firelit and menacing Lincoln Room. Hopkins runs the gamut of emotion, from false sense of security to paranoia to his shocking “come and get me” attitude once impeachment looms, to downright despair and shame when he stands in judgment before the portrait of John F. Kennedy (“When they look at you, they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are” – another piece of not-so-subtle symbolic melodrama). This was the man who brought shame and disgrace to the highest office in the nation, but Stone’s film and Hopkins’ performance makes Nixon the man something more than that. Just think about strange moments and decisions in this man’s life (the “you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore” concession speech, shamelessly showing off his cocker spaniel to the American public, “I am not a crook”, and on and on), and he’s like a weak, spoiled, middle-aged child, wanting everything and foolishly letting greedy forces around him guide him to glory, only to crash and burn – he’s unsympathetic because he’s greedy (or stupid) enough to get into this mess and get caught, but at least he’s pitiable, so the Nixon of this film is far from a villain. Somehow Hopkins is able to disguise this man, a dirty blot in American history, with pretty curtains, so kudos to him.
The best scene in the entire film chronicles Nixon’s bizarre, impromptu late-night visit to the Lincoln Memorial and his run-in with a bunch of anti-war hippies. They’re horrified by the old and out of touch Nixon’s “peace with honor” approach to Vietnam, and he’s horrified by their lifestyle, their automatic mistrust of him and the government. As Nixon stares up at Lincoln, atomic bombs are superimposed behind him as a sarcastically-bombastic rendition of the Battle Hymn of the Republic plays. This is the stuff of satire, a wonderful interpretation of Nixon’s hopelessly naive view of the world. Then, things get all-too-serious as Nixon has his ultimate war of wills with, of all people, a 19 year old girl who understands what he never has, that this government Beast is swallowing him whole. A scene like this is the stuff of greatness, weaving Stone’s signature over-the-top cynicism and random images with dead-set seriousness in the here and now. “What have I done wrong,” he weepingly asks Kissinger later on. “I opened China, I made peace with Russia, I ended the war, I did what I thought was right. God, why do they hate me so?” Did this powerful breakdown actually happen? I doubt it, but every bad decision, every pang of guilt by the Nixon of this film leads to this very moment, so for the sake of the silver screen, it’s destiny. Nixon was a lot like Stone and this movie: he saw greatness in what he was doing, but ignored the flaws until they grew too big for him to handle. At this moment, Richard Nixon was no longer the demonized disgrace that I only knew from textbooks, but a tragic, compelling figure. And it only took wading through three hours of uneven muck to get there.
If you want to learn about the most famous murder of the 20th century, don’t watch Oliver Stone’s movie about it. For god’s sake, learn all you can about the assassination of John F. Kennedy from history class and (relatively) unbiased textbooks first, and then visit Stone’s grand epic that tries to throw those history classes and (relatively) unbiased textbooks out the window of the Texas School Book Depository. Not satisfied with the Warren Report’s explanation that Lee Harvey Oswald and Lee Harvey Oswald alone was responsible for firing three of the most precisely fired bullets EVER into the President of the United States (and really, is there anyone fully satisfied with that appallingly cryptic explanation?), Louisiana D.A. Jim Garrison (as played by Kevin Costner) goes so far as to implicate the C.I.A., the weapons industry, and President Johnson himself in Kennedy’s murder. At times he’s frighteningly persuasive, at times frighteningly obsessive and downright crazy. And that’s exactly what Oliver Stone’s film is – persuasive one minute, total bullshit the next. But with filmmaking talent like Stone’s, even the bullshit of “JFK” becomes incomparably compelling.
There’s a reason why “JFK” was embroiled in all that controversy even before it was released. It practically launched Oliver Stone’s reputation as that crazy, left-wing conspiracy theorist. Guess introducing the idea of a massive government cover-up and plot to assassinate the President might do that, might just be a stretch. And there are points galore in “JFK” where ‘stretch’ doesn’t begin to describe the absolute gluttony of theories and speculations and facts about bullet angles and Oswald and who was where at Dealey Plaza on that fateful day. More than once I just laughed out loud when Garrison or his colleagues or his informant Mr. X would just conclude from the shadiest ‘evidence’ imaginable that the whole assassination occurred to prevent a troop withdrawal from Vietnam. It’s really silly, but perhaps the most compelling silliness you’ll ever see. There was nary a moment in this three-hour film (it didn’t feel nearly that long, by the way) that didn’t have my complete and rapt attention. I was thoroughly absorbed in every who-was-where, who-did-what, who-was-affiliated-with-who, and magic bullet that Oliver Stone threw at me. Hell, I couldn’t afford not to be thoroughly absorbed with the orgy of information this movie’s got for us, or I would’ve been hopelessly lost. If you consider “JFK” to be a straight-up murder mystery / thriller / courtroom drama, then it’s got more evidence and information than just about any other film of its kind that I’ve seen. Donald Sutherland’s mysterious Mr. X gives a monologue to Garrison for at least 10 minutes which is just fact after fact, conjecture after conjecture, that achieved a kind of poetry. I find it shocking that even an actor of Donald Sutherland’s caliber could actually memorize all that crap without reading it off cue cards. And of course there’s Kevin Costner’s now-famous closing statement at the trial of Clay Shaw (the only man ever tried for the murder of John F. Kennedy), complete with the Zapruder tape analysis, the implication of everybody in the U.S. government and their grandmothers, and his best Jimmy Stewart impression in imploring the jury to see justice done. Even if this movie didn’t have the impeccable flashback structure, dialogue delivery of the facts alone by people like Mr. X and Garrison are so saturated with stuff that you couldn’t possibly keep up…but by god you’ll try to.
But thank god those flashbacks are there, ‘cuz you’ll need them. The (Oscar-winning) editing of past and present is haphazard and quick and chaotic – just like the chaotic mess that Jim Garrison finds himself trying to piece together. You combine a barrage of information thrown at you from all sides, little snippets of images of what might have happened at different times, and John Williams’ over-the-top but thrilling score and you’ve got some damned compelling conjecture to sort through. You’re as absorbed in all the information, misinformation, and straight-up speculation as an increasingly-obsessed Jim Garrison is, and it’s all thanks to Oliver Stone’s artistry. And the cast, a who’s-who of famous faces, ain’t no slouch either. Some of the ‘performances,’ like blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em appearances by Walter Mathau, Ed Asner, Jack Lemmon and John Candy, are just distractions and could’ve been much more effective with unknown faces. Others, though, are excellent – Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald, Joe Pesci…being Joe Pesci, as a hotheaded pilot and possible Oswald compatriot, Kevin Bacon as a gay prostitute, and of course Tommy Lee Jones as the subtly flamboyant Clay Shaw. Good luck sorting out who’s who among these zany characters, ‘cuz that’ll be as tough as sorting out the cacophony of facts – tough, but really, really fun. This movie and its wide range of theories is like that insolvable puzzle that you can’t help but try to futilely figure out one piece at a time. It’s like when you feel that great sense of pride upon completing one side of the Rubik’s Cube – and then realizing you still have five sides to complete, and you have no choice but to completely undo what you’ve already accomplished.
Oliver Stone does a hell of a job making this mess of assumptions and theories just clear enough to make the conspiracy argument frighteningly compelling, but he also does a wise thing in not completely buying into it. In fact, the film’s version of Jim Garrison is often demonized as an obsessive whack job who’s lost all sense of priority. The film’s big weak point is trying to melodramatically humanize the Garrison family in thankless and clichéd scenes involving fights with his wife played by Sissy Spacek, but even putting those aside, just think about how far Jim Garrison takes this, implicating the highest levels of the United States Government in a massive conspiracy of treason and murder, and watch how Kevin Costner becomes just a little too emotionally drawn to his final argument (in what’s easily the best performance of the otherwise irritating Costner’s career, by the way), and you’ll see that Stone doesn’t exactly paint the brightest picture of this guy. His closing argument in the courtroom comes complete with scale-models, charts, the Zapruder film, facts, speculations, and a big emotional pay-off – but does little if anything to implicate Clay Shaw, the one who’s actually in the defendant’s chair. In fact, he only refers to Shaw by name once or twice. If Lee Harvey Oswald was the ‘patsy’ in the assassination plot like he claimed after being arrested, then Shaw was Garrison’s ‘patsy.’ Garrison had no case against Shaw and knew it – he just wanted an avenue to make his grand theories public, to let it all out and vindicate himself of his obsession. We can see how cockeyed Garrison and his theories are, but thanks to that craaaaazy liberal Oliver Stone and his gift for making a hell of a mystery/ thriller regardless of how it leans politically, we become as intoxicated in the information as Garrison does. It’s ridiculous to think that a conspiracy to kill Kennedy went as far as Garrison claimed, but one head going ‘back and to the left’ later, I defy you to say with a straight face that one man with a shitty gun from a shitty vantage point could’ve done that to the head of the most powerful man in the world with three shots in six seconds.