The Man Who Viewed Too Much
25 August 1997

Conspirators of Pleasure

Written and directed by Jan Svankmajer
Rating: ***

Conspiracy Theory

Directed by Richard Donner
Written by Brian Helgeland
Rating: ** ½


Directed by Jonathan Nossiter
Written by James Lasdun
Rating: ** ½

The Full Monty

Directed by Peter Cattaneo
Written by Simon Beaufoy
Rating: ***


Directed by Jan Troell
Written by Per Olov Enquist
Adapted from the book Processen mod Hamsun by Thorkild Hansen
Rating: **


Written and directed by Deepa Mehta
Rating: **

Ratings are on a four-star scale

Everybody feeling rested and alert? Good, 'cause I've got a puzzle for you.

Six people -- three men and three women -- are busily but furtively occupied in the city of Prague. One of the men is creating an enormous papier-mâché rooster head out of modeling clay and the pages of pornographic magazines. His female neighbor is gathering straw from garbage cans. The man who runs the newsstand where the first man bought the porn mags is constructing a bizarre machine involving almost half a dozen mannequin hands. As he works, he watches a female newscaster on his television set; at home, this newscaster keeps two enormous fish hidden in a bucket of water in her bedroom. She shares that bedroom with her husband, who is scouring shops across Prague in search of every brush and bristle that he can get his hands on, as well as household items ranging from pot lids to rolling pins. And the female postal worker who delivers the mail to each of these households spends her break time rolling a huge loaf of bread into several hundred tiny moistened balls of dough.

Here's the puzzle: What the hell is going on here?

No, you won't find the answer written upside-down at the bottom of the page. If you're truly curious, you'll have to seek out Conspirators of Pleasure, the first (mostly) live-action feature film directed by renowned Czech animator Jan Svankmajer (Alice, Faust). Essentially a silent film (there's no dialogue, but plentiful music and sound effects, along with occasional and unsubtitled background chatter), it charts the hypnotically bizarre erotic obsessions of the sextet described above -- all of whom are played by human actors, but some of whom are occasionally animated in Svankmajer's usual stop-motion technique. Though most or all of them have jobs, each one has apparently devoted his/her life to his/her fetish; indeed, some of them have managed to coordinate business and pleasure in a way that maximizes the fulfillment derived from each. Intriguingly, these six societal transgressors are the only people we meet throughout the film; the absence of any "normal" characters suggests that a sort of symbiotic auto-eroticism (not, I must stress, the Crash variety) is supplanting traditional sexual relations in modern life.

At least, I think that that's what it suggests. To be honest, I was far too busy trying to make sense of the film's Rube Goldberg-style accumulation and juxtaposition of objects to think very clearly about its themes and subtext; it was only when the closing credits began to scroll up the screen that I realized that Conspirators of Pleasure doesn't really feature a plot, in the traditional sense. Svankmajer cuts back and forth among the characters as they prepare for their masturbatory sessions (some of which are metaphorical in nature...but trust me, that's what's going on here), and I assumed, before I understood what was what, that their stories would eventually converge. A couple of them do, in fact, in a surreally grotesque finale, but the others remain stubbornly on parallel tracks; even the husband and wife live almost entirely in separate worlds of their own devising. When one of the group does stumble onto another, they exchange only sly half-winks and almost-nods -- half-guilty, half-accusatory expressions that connote "I see you're one of us." These conspirators recognize each other's concealed perversity, but that's the extent of their interaction (again, with one notable, brutal exception).

That sense of voluntary isolation, while crucial to Svankmajer's thesis (or what I presume his thesis to be, at any rate), is also the film's greatest liability. However brilliantly conceived and executed, it's so solipsistic that it more or less precludes any kind of emotional involvement; I was fascinated by these weird people, but I can't exactly say that I ever cared about them. After all, this is, at bottom, a movie about masturbation; it's even structured like a sexual act, with a prolonged period of foreplay (the preparatory rituals) gradually building to orgasms. But just as masturbation often leaves its sole participant physically satisfied but emotionally unfulfilled, Svankmajer's cinematic preoccupation with self-stimulation dazzles from a distance, without ever touching the viewer (in either sense). Ultimately, Conspirators of Pleasure seems to me more a virtuoso stunt than a genuine work of art -- an entertaining and disturbing stunt, and as good a picture of its kind as I can imagine, but one that necessarily appeals only to the intellect (except insofar as one can't help laughing at the sight of a man in the throes of ecstasy wearing a papier-mâché rooster mask and flapping wings fashioned from half a dozen umbrellas). I'm embarrassed to confess that I haven't yet seen any of Svankmajer's seminal animated films (though I've seen some stunning work from his acolytes, the Brothers Quay), and I'm curious to find out what he can achieve when he doesn't burden himself with conceptual limitations. On the evidence of this picture, my preliminary guess is: anything he likes.

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I've seen nearly 3000 movies to date, and only three (3) of those feature titles that include a form of the word "conspiracy": Shadow Conspiracy (seen on video as an assignment for Entertainment Weekly), Conspirators of Pleasure (see above), and Conspiracy Theory, the new romantic thriller starring Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts. That's nearly one in a thousand, and I saw all three of them within a period of less than four weeks. Coincidence? I don't think so.

First question: when, exactly, did Richard Donner (Superman, The Goonies, the Lethal Weapon series) learn how to direct? Conspiracy Theory looks absolutely stunning (it was shot by John Schwartzman, whose fine work on last year's The Rock was barely visible, thanks to painfully incoherent editing), and the first hour or so constitutes the most imaginative and skillful Hollywood filmmaking I've seen so far this year. With the exception of a few scenes late in the picture, the entire movie takes place in the Big Apple, and this is the most evocative depiction of my home since Woody Allen's Manhattan, somehow simultaneously sentimental and paranoid. From the gorgeous opening credits (nice assist from Carter Burwell's peppy score) onward, Donner and Schwartzman give the city a burnished, mysterious look, as if we were seeing it through Jerry's addled eyes; I was a little bummed when I walked from the theater onto the street and saw that the Village looked the same as it always does.

You know the premise: Gibson plays a New York cabbie, name of Jerry Fletcher, who writes a pathetic little newsletter (with a grand total of five subscribers) detailing various irrational conspiracy theories that his unhinged mind has invented. He's also obsessed with Justice Department employee Alice Sutton (Roberts), and spends much of his free time either pestering her at work or spying on her at her Manhattan apartment. Gibson has always excelled at playing charming rogues who are a little bit crazy, but Jerry -- for a while, anyway -- is more intriguing: he's not all that charming, and he's a lot more than a little bit crazy. Early scenes of Jerry regaling his passengers with wild tales of silent black helicopters and Oliver Stone's true agenda were entertaining enough, but my interest level picked up considerably when I first saw Jerry's apartment -- specifically, when Jerry laboriously unlocked his refrigerator, then pulled out a couple of metal food containers with combination locks attached. "This is no charming rogue," I thought to myself. "This guy is fucking nuts." Our protagonist is insane. I leaned forward.

It wasn't long before further evidence confirmed that this was -- for a while, anyway -- no ordinary studio picture. Shortly after the scene in his apartment-cum-fortress, Jerry is grabbed by a couple of sinister-looking men, forcibly spirited to an unspecified, dank locale, and interrogated by a bald man with a cultured voice, who we later learn is named Jonas (Patrick Stewart). This scene is indescribable. It is beyond bizarre. It culminates in a frenzy of activity, with Jerry thumping down a flight of stairs in a wheelchair, his eyelids taped to his forehead, screaming at the top of his lungs. Borrowing elements from Gilliam, Kubrick, and Schlesinger, it's so utterly unlike anything Donner has done in the past, and so divorced from what Hollywood generally thinks of as "entertainment," that I briefly wondered whether I was hallucinating it. At this point, I was also wondering how I was going to respond to the brickbats that would inevitably be hurled when I included Conspiracy Theory on my top ten list.

Jerry escapes from Jonas' clutches, and concludes, sensibly enough, that one of his theories must be correct. But there's a hitch: Jonas said nothing specific, so Jerry doesn't know which theory had riled him up. Which brings me to my second question: What, exactly, was screenwriter Brian Helgeland (Assassins, the forthcoming L.A. Confidential) thinking? This is a great idea for a movie; the trouble is, it isn't, as it turns out, Helgeland's idea for this movie. Jerry's newsletter is the biggest red herring since the serial rapist subplot in Malice; what's really going on is both a lot sillier and a lot less compelling. And the moment that it's revealed, Conspiracy Theory goes straight into the toilet; the second half of the film ranks alongside Turbulence and (hmm...) Shadow Conspiracy as the most incompetent, malodorous nonsense I've endured in ages. (Ominously, the nosedive begins during a scene set in the Barnes & Noble at Union Square.) Jerry gradually mutates from a damaged lunatic into, you guessed it, a charming rogue. Alice Sutton (this -- for a while, anyway -- is one of Roberts' best performances), naturally, falls in love with him. The two of them share some inane adventures; evil Jonas is dispatched in the traditional movie-villain fashion; and just when the movie appears to be rallying, courtesy of a suitably bittersweet finale, it suddenly shifts into Multiple Conclusion Mode, finally wrapping up just as sunnily and nauseatingly as Pretty Woman or Air America. This was the Richard Donner I'd known and, at best, tolerated. So who was pretending to be Donner for the first half of the movie? I'd like to hear Jerry's take on this one.

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His thoughts on the voting process for the Sundance Film Festival's dramatic Grand Jury Prize would also be welcome. Somethin' shady is goin' on here, I figure -- what are the odds of four consecutive juries demonstrating such rotten taste? Granted, this is a subjective matter, and so it doesn't pay to become too paranoid; still, What Happened Was..., The Brothers McMullen, and Welcome to the Dollhouse were the winners in '94, '95, and '96, respectively, and though each of them (especially Dollhouse) has its admirers, I found all three mediocre at best. This year, the phenomenal In the Company of Men was in the running, yet the prize was awarded instead to a gimmicky little film called Sunday, which also won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at that festival. I dunno, folks. Draw your own conclusions.

It'll be good practice, actually, because you'll be drawing plenty of your own conclusions during the course of watching Sunday. Not long after the film begins, a middle-aged woman named Madeleine (Lisa Harrow) spots a middle-aged man (David Suchet) across a busy Queens intersection, and recognizes him as noted movie director Matthew Delacorta. This strikes us as a little odd, however, since he's just been introduced to us as a homeless man by the name of Oliver, during an opening credits sequence that takes place at a men's shelter, where he apparently lives. Nevertheless, when Madeleine rushes to greet him, he doesn't deny that he's Matthew Delacorta, and Sunday looks as if it's going to be the story of a meek little man who assumes the persona of an important one, as a way of combating his own feelings of inferiority and helplessness. Not an especially original concept, but still a fascinating one.

There's more, however. First of all, both Oliver/Matthew and Madeleine seem somewhat...peculiar. They wind up spending most of the day together, and their conversations -- first at a diner, later at Madeleine's home -- are fraught with nervous tension, no matter how innocuous the subject matter. Madeleine, in particular, seems to have some sort of an agenda; perhaps it's just that she hopes that this big-time director will resuscitate her acting career, but perhaps it's something else again. Furthermore, the Character Being Played by David Suchet tells Madeleine a long story that seems to be an implicit confession that he's not who she thinks he is -- but which might only be an idea for his next movie. From this point on, it's impossible to say with any certainty who this man is, or who Madeleine thinks he is. Is he a homeless man pretending to be a movie director, or a movie director pretending to be a homeless man? Does she really think that he's Matthew Delacorta, or is she just pretending to think that he's Matthew Delacorta? If the latter, is she playing along with the charade to spare his feelings, or to fuck with his mind?

Sounds intriguing, doesn't it? It's a nifty little psychological mystery, no doubt; the only trouble is that director Jonathan Nossiter and screenwriter James Lasdun provide no answer, no solution. I've read reviews that categorically state that Suchet is playing Oliver, who's pretending to be Matthew, and I've read reviews that assert with equal conviction that Suchet is playing Matthew, who's pretending to be Oliver. Frankly, I have no clue who the hell Suchet is playing, which makes Sunday a bit too coy for my taste. A little ambiguity is always desirable, but Sunday is so ambiguous that it ultimately seems meaningless -- little more than an elaborate practical joke that the filmmakers are playing on the audience. (It's not unlike The Usual Suspects in that regard, though at least Sunday is a pleasure to watch while it's unfolding; how Christopher McQuarrie's tepid script won an Oscar, on the other hand, is beyond my comprehension.)

In the film's penultimate scene, Madeleine appears to learn the truth, but if that truth was conveyed to the audience, I completely missed it. So concerned was I that I'd simply been dense that I appealed to my friend Charles François, who was about to see a separate screening, to pay close attention to that moment, and to let me know if I'd misinterpreted what I'd seen. He reported back that a) his interpretation was as uncertain as my own; and b) Nossiter, in the post-screening Q&A, had pointedly refused to comment about either what this moment was intended to convey or who the character really is. (Nobody at my screening, myself included, had asked the question, probably because none of us wanted to look stupid.) Nor does Madeleine's response to this hidden revelation shed any light, since her subsequent action makes equal sense in either scenario. By refusing to own up to who its characters are and what they think of one another, Sunday essentially demands that we supply the acute understanding of human behavior that would transform the film from an intellectual puzzle to an enduring work of art. I'm willing to meet filmmakers halfway, but this is pushing it.

Many independent American films, especially those made by first-time directors, suffer from amateurish acting, but that is decidedly not the case here; Suchet (PBS' Hercule Poirot) and Harrow (The Last Days of Chez Nous) give world-class performances, easily two of the year's best. Suchet, in particular, deserves some kind of special award for his work in this movie. Call it Best Performance by an Actor in an Unspecified Role.

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IN BRIEF: A movie about six unemployed women who opt to become strippers, in a last-ditch attempt to regain both economic solvency and a sense of self-worth, would probably not be a comedy; certainly the critical reception of Striptease suggests that the premise didn't work with one woman, especially since that woman was played by humorless hardbody Demi Moore. Make it six men, however, most of whom aren't exactly Adonises, and it's another story altogether; right or wrong, it's difficult to remain concerned about such issues as objectification and self-degradation when you're watching half a dozen amiable oafs struggle to keep in step, or when one of them flings his leather jacket sexily across the room and loose change cascades noisily from its pockets. (Because Western society believes that a woman's ability to project her sexuality is her most important attribute, similar gags involving would-be female strippers would strike most people as more pathetic than funny.) If you've seen the trailer for The Full Monty, you've already seen the film's best moment -- the one in which the fellas start very gently grooving to Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff" while waiting on the dole queue -- but there are plenty of bits that are nearly as hilarious, and I thoroughly enjoyed the movie in spite of some ideological misgivings. Still, I wait for the day when a movie about half a dozen average-looking women taking their clothes off would find us laughing with them, and not at them. Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun seems to have led a fascinating life, but you wouldn't know it from Hamsun, Jan Troell's lengthy, dull account of the Nobel Prize winner's misguided support of the Third Reich. If this representation is accurate, Hamsun would have made an ideal Fassbinder protagonist -- Troell and screenwriter Per Olev Enquist portray him as a dupe, whose allegedly good intentions are twisted both by the Nazis and by his duplicitous wife (Ghita Norby) for their own nefarious purposes. The difference is that Fassbinder wouldn't have absolved the fool at the eye of his hurricane, and would have imposed his unique cinematic sensibility on the material; Troell's take is both politically dubious and visually flat. (Directors making period films, as a general rule, need to worry a lot less about art direction and set decoration, and a lot more about where to put the camera and which lenses to use.) Even an actor as brilliant and iconic as Max von Sydow, as Hamsun, can't breathe life into this stuffy, unadventurous "quality drama." After two tedious hours, with forty minutes more to go, I found myself wishing I were watching Hansen instead. If nothing else, it would at least have been a lot shorter. Fire, Deepa Mehta's ridiculous Indian romance, has finally opened commercially in New York City, and I have little to add to the comments I made almost a year ago following its screening at the 1996 New York Film Festival [Oops. I deleted the file, having forgotten that I'd created this link to it. Sorry...]. Another lesbian-themed movie bites the dust. C'mon, people, this can't be that hard.

Next time (in all likelihood): G.I. Jane, Hoodlum, She's So Lovely