The Man Who Viewed Too Much
10 February 1997


Directed by Richard Linklater
Written by Eric Bogosian
Adapted from the play subUrbia by Eric Bogosian
Rating: ** ½

Ulysses' Gaze

Written and directed by Theo Angelopoulos
Rating: **

Prisoner of the Mountains

Directed by Sergei Bodrov
Written by Sergei Bodrov, Arif Aliev, and Boris Giller
Adapted from Prisoner of the Caucasus by Leo Tolstoy
Rating: *** ½


Directed by Jan Sverak
Written by Zdenek Sverak and Pavel Taussig
Rating: **

Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern

Directed by Jeanne Jordan & Steven Ascher
Rating: ***


Written and directed by Vondie Curtis Hall
Rating: ** ½

Ratings are on a four-star scale

Boy, you take a week off to unwind after putting together the year-end top ten list, and look what happens: half a dozen films are clamoring for your attention. Granted, I didn't see all of the above during the past fortnight; subUrbia was screened at last year's New York Film Festival, where I saw it in October, and it's been nearly a year since I caught Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern at the Museum of Modern Art, where it appeared after being nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Academy Award (which it eventually lost, unjustly, to Anne Frank Remembered). They're all playing at a theater near me at the moment, however, and I'd best address them now, since I already have at least three films on my agenda for next week. Future columns will, I hope, be a little more focused.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

As an unqualified fan of both director Richard Linklater (Slacker; Dazed and Confused; Before Sunrise) and writer/actor Eric Bogosian (Talk Radio; Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll; Pounding Nails into the Floor with My Forehead), I couldn't wait to see the result of their collaboration -- an adaptation of Bogosian's stage play subUrbia, the Broadway run of which I'd regretted missing back in 1994. And I didn't wait, as it happens: instead, I shelled out $13 to catch the film's world premiere at the New York Film Festival last October. (So harried were the filmmakers in their desperate attempt to complete the picture before its scheduled screening that the print the festival ran was reportedly still slightly damp. Nor had they found time to add the closing credits; instead, the film simply ended after the final shot, abruptly cutting to black...which somehow seemed appropriate, given the bleak conclusion.) Sadly, I find that I must now qualify my fanaticism for both artists with the words "except for subUrbia"; while it's not an embarrassment, it's certainly the least interesting and most conventional item in either of their oeuvres.

Alhough proponents of the auteur theory would point an accusing finger at Linklater, I suspect that it's Bogosian who should shoulder most of the blame; his play, based upon the evidence here, simply isn't very good. Set in and around the parking lot of a 24-hour convenience store in Burnfield, Texas, the film version stares dispassionately at the aimless exploits of a group of beautiful losers, whose repetitive, dreary lives are upended one evening by the return of an old friend, Pony (Jayce Bartok), who is now a minor rock star. (This is a bit difficult to swallow, frankly, as Bartok is woefully uncharismatic, and the one song we hear him perform makes James Taylor sound like James Brown by comparison.) While the scenes that precede Pony's homecoming are reasonably sharp -- sometimes resembling nothing so much as a slacker version of Waiting for Godot -- those that follow his arrival are painfully contrived, a series of bland encounter sessions and less-than-credible plot complications. A potential year's worth of activity at this hangout is packed into a single long night -- an acceptable theatrical metaphor, perhaps, but one that comes across as stilted and ridiculous onscreen, especially in a film this naturalistic. All three of Linklater's previous commercial releases (his first film is still unreleased, though Quentin Tarantino's arm of Miramax, Rolling Thunder, may distribute it later this year) also take place in a 24-hour period, so he's an old pro at the "Day in the Life of" genre, but his own loose-limbed, improvisatory, anecdotal writing style is far more effective in such a limited time frame than is Bogosian's tortured melodrama.

In fact, that's really the crux of the problem. Bogosian's previous shows were one-man affairs, in which he portrayed a wide variety of sleazy, unpleasant wastrels. His gift is for hyperbolic, rat-a-tat monologue...which, with rare exceptions, is pretty much antithetical to cinema's strengths. Some of subUrbia's characters -- particularly aspiring feminist performance-artist Sooze (played in the film by Amie Carey), sulky nominal protagonist Jeff (Giovanni Ribisi), and self-deluded party animal Buff (That Thing You Do!'s Steve Zahn...Ribisi was in that film as well, now that I think about it, in a thankless role) -- might make fine monologue material; here, Bogosian tries to force them to interact, and they're just too thinly conceived to co-exist in what is allegedly the real world. Their assorted concerns and gripes, too, are both too superficial and too familiar to be of much interest to anyone who's seen any of the other recent disaffected-youth pictures that've been begging (mostly in vain) for a piece of the young adult audience's eminently disposable income.

Linklater and Bogosian do what they can to open up the material, and the opening credit sequence -- a series of tracking shots of suburban strip-malls and tacky low-income housing developments, set to Gene Pitney's stirring "Town without Pity" -- kicks the film off in fine style. The cast, Bartok excepted, is quite strong, and as an acting exercise, if nothing else, subUrbia is certainly watchable. And for those with the patience to remain to the end, there's a scene of unexpected force and pathos in store: Ajay Naidu, as the Pakistani owner of the 7-11-like shop that serves as a second home for Jeff and Buff and company, gets to deliver the film's Aesop-simple moral, and though the moment is simplistic and cheesy, it still packs a wallop. I found myself thinking that a film about him would have been much more interesting. And ever so marketable, too!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment. Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its floor.

The heaven being spread with this pallid screen and the earth with the darkest vegetation, their meeting-line at the horizon was clearly marked. In such contrast the heath wore the appearance of an installment of night which had taken up its place before its astronomical hour was come: darkness had to a great extent arrived hereon, while day stood distinct in the sky. Looking upwards, a furze-cutter would have been inclined to continue work; looking down, he would have decided to finish his faggot and go home. The distant rims of the world and of the firmament seemed to be a division in time no less than a division in matter. The face of the heath by its mere complexion added half an hour to evening; it could in like manner retard the dawn, sadden noon, anticipate the frowning of storms scarcely generated, and intensify the opacity of a moonless midnight to a cause of shaking and dread.

Beautiful, no? Those are the opening paragraphs, as some of you have already recognized, of Thomas Hardy's novel The Return of the Native. (If the first sentence seems oddly familiar, yet you've never read Hardy's book, then you probably own the Monty Python album that contains the "Wide World of Novel Writing" sketch.) Economically describing not only time and place but the state of mind of characters yet unseen, it's simply gorgeous prose, eloquent and powerful. And the whole book is that good, too. I return to it now and again, in idle moments, and I never tire of it.

But you know what? If The Return of the Native went on in that vein for the next 800 pages -- if Hardy continued to marvel about the heath and the sky and the horizon, while barely acknowledging the presence of Eustacia Vye and her fellows, for chapter after chapter after chapter -- I probably would tire of it. Pretty quickly, in fact. Landscapes are all well and good, but if I want to contemplate them at length, I'll travel, or head for a nearby museum, or simply step outside. In works of narrative fiction, it's the people that I care about, and while environment can sometimes be telling (as Hardy so ably demonstrates above), that kind of oblique characterization only enthralls for me for so long. If you feel otherwise, skip ahead to the next review. The rest of this one will only irritate you.

Ulysses' Gaze won the Special Jury Prize (second prize, essentially) at the Cannes Film Festival in 1995; and was made by a renowned director, Theo Angelopoulos (The Travelling Players, Landscape in the Mist); and concerns an important historical event (the war in former Yugoslavia); and is only now, two years after its triumph at Cannes, receiving a token theatrical release in the United States...and so only a fool would dare to point out, however reluctantly, that it's a tedious, pretentious, butt-numbing three hours of landscape fetishization. As you've no doubt surmised, I am that fool. Angelopoulos received his award very ungraciously, complaining that he deserved the Palme d'Or (first prize, essentially, which that year was given to another film about the same conflict, Emir Kusturica's Underground) -- but if I ever bump into the guy, I plan to tell him to shut up and be grateful that the jury was so impressed by his elaborate tracking shots, and so cowed by the existence of a film set in Belgrade and Sarajevo, that they failed to notice, or opted not to care, that there are no human beings in his movie.

I'm speaking figuratively, of course; the lead role, that of a Greek-born film director known only as A. (three guesses, two don't count), is played, for no particular reason that I can discern, by Harvey Keitel -- who, to be fair, seems a bit more at home here than he did in The Last Temptation of Christ, if only because he isn't required to talk much. (Conversation might distract us from the scenery.) Every moment of silence is a blessing, frankly, because the English-language dialogue (several other tongues are also heard) is fatally stilted; poor Harvey has to rattle off a couple of long speeches that sound as if they were transcribed from that monotonous, interminable textbook you opened once and vowed never to crack again. The minimalist plot finds A. traveling from one war-torn country to the next in search of some lost silent footage by early Greek filmmakers, which would be fine if we had the foggiest notion of why this quest is so important to him that he's repeatedly willing to risk life and limb to locate the elusive three reels. (Pee-Wee's Big Adventure may not be Topical or Significant, but at least you understand why Pee-Wee is desperate to find his cool bike.) Maia Morgenstern (The Oak) turns up as three different women (all of whom are instantly attracted to the sullen, implacable A., who is conceived by Angelopoulos as a chick magnet for reasons perhaps better left unexamined), which only made me wish that I were watching Meg Ryan in Joe vs. the Volcano instead.

Ulysses' Gaze finally managed to grab my attention in the third and final hour, after A. reaches Sarajevo; events in that beleaguered city build to a chilling, fog-enshrouded climax that's stunningly effective (though even this scene is undermined by the sound of Keitel's patented Moan o' Anguish, as previously heard in Reservoir Dogs, Bad Lieutenant, The Piano, and possibly several others). Nor are the first two hours entirely without merit -- Angelopoulos' stately, gliding camera movements are intermittently impressive, and the locations, of course, are dazzling, whether in their beauty or in their squalor. But when Keitel, gazing into the lens, began reciting a passage from The Odyssey late in the film, I heaved a sigh of relief, secure in the knowledge that -- the title now didactically explained -- the damn thing was just about over.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

If it's a well-told tale about contemporary political strife you seek, why not turn to Leo Tolstoy? What, just because he's been dead for almost a century? That little setback didn't stop Russian filmmaker Sergei Bodrov from using Count Leo's children's story, Prisoner of the Caucausus, as the basis for his Chechnya-set Prisoner of the Mountains; the result is more timeless than timely, more a fable than a report from the front, and all the more captivating for its universality. It's early yet, of course, but so far, this is the best commercial release of 1997.

Right about here is where I should begin explaining what's so all-fired terrific about the film, but in that respect Prisoner of the Mountains presents me, as critic, with something of a conundrum: there's nothing very unique or groundbreaking or provocative about it. It is, simply put, a tale exceptionally well-told; once that's been said, and "see this if it comes near your town or prepare for my wrath" appended, there really isn't much more to blather on about. The story is almost laughably trite: two Russian soldiers -- one a cynical, arrogant officer; the other a raw, frightened recruit -- are captured by the enemy and used as a bargaining tool by one of the village elders, whose son is being held captive by the Russian forces. The deal quickly falls apart, and the two men, polar opposites in almost every respect, chained together by their ankles, are left with nothing to do but plot an unlikely escape or await an ugly death. Anyone want to guess whether or not the defiant ones gradually come to respect and admire one another? It sounds unpromisingly predictable and familiar, I know, and the truth is that it is predictable and familiar -- but only in its broad strokes. The details are another matter entirely; there are small, quiet revelations and unexpected pleasures buried in virtually every scene.

Let me give you an example of what I mean -- one that won't spoil anything for you. About halfway through the film, the two prisoners are hanging out at a party (no, really), and their host, a large, boisterous fellow, "suggests" that the younger one fight the local boxing champion -- a guy who looks as though he could take out Dolph Lundgren, Mr T. and Carl Weathers simultaneously without even curling his fingers into fists. (Who was the nemesis in Rocky V? [Don't send me the answer, I don't actually care.]) We see him demolish another Chechen contender in about fifteen seconds flat, and then it's our timid, puny hero's turn. Okay, I thought to myself, there are two ways that this could go: (1) our guy somehow manages to win, or at least remain conscious and prove himself worthy of their (and our) respect -- maybe he's more powerful than he appears, or uses his wits to overcome his opponent's superior brawn; or (2) our guy gets clobbered in a scene too painful to watch. The first solution seemed a cop-out, the second unnecessarily sadistic, and I was delighted to find that I was flat-out wrong: there's a third , hilarious alternative, the nature of which I'll let you discover for yourself. This is a brief, fairly insignificant scene, and has little to do with the narrative or with our protagonists' psyches, but it's representative of the ways in which Prisoner of the Mountains subtly and persuasively confounds our expectations. Just when you think you've pegged it, it lurches quietly in another direction.

If I haven't mentioned the actors yet (and I haven't), it's only because they're so casually remarkable that they recede into their roles, so that one instinctively thinks of the characters and the performers as a single unit. The two leads are played by Oleg Menshikov, whom I'd seen previously in Nikita Mikhalkov's Burnt by the Sun, and Sergei Bodrov Jr., the director's son, who was a new face to me; both of them are as Just Right as the baby bear's bed and chair and porridge. (I have a bit of a Goldilocks complex as a filmgoer, constantly seeking the middle ground: "This movie is too abstruse." "This movie is too vapid.") I would guess, though I may be mistaken, that most of the supporting roles were performed by non-professionals; at any rate, they all seemed perfectly natural and relaxed, and contributed a great deal to the film's sense of easy authenticity. There isn't a false moment to be found, in fact -- even a fanciful diversion in the final reel works beautifully, so perfectly understated is it -- and for that achievement alone I heartily recommend it to you. I wish that I could think of something more exciting to impart, a "hook" that would provide a clear incentive for you to spend your time and money on this subtitled, straightforward recitation of a yarn from 150 years ago, but what I'm essentially saying is: Trust me.

For someone who claimed there wasn't much else to blather on about, I didn't do a half-bad job of not shutting up, did I? You'd think I was being paid by the word (or paid at all, for that matter).

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

IN BRIEF: Miramax's ad campaign for the allegedly heartwarming Czech dramedy Kolya tells you everything you need to know: "The perfect grouch is about to meet his match -- A five-year-old kid named...Kolya." No, it's not quite as dreadful as that sounds, and while it's essentially One Man and a Toddler, it's far less crass and superficial than its Hollywood counterparts (see also Baby Boom, the dopey "I hate kids but oh wait these two are growing on me" subplot added to the film of Jurassic Park, et. al). That doesn't make it any more interesting or less predictable, however; competently acted and directed, it's thoroughly inoffensive and utterly forgettable. Naturally, it, rather than fellow nominee Prisoner of the Mountains, was awarded the Golden Globe for Best Foreign-Language film a couple of weeks ago. Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern is a documentary about a family in Iowa who are struggling to pay their creditors before their farm is repossessed by the bank. Wait, don't skip ahead to the next item! I know what you're thinking, because I was thinking the same thing as I dutifully trudged to the theater: "Oh god, another tedious saving the farm film." It sounds like cod liver oil time, but in fact Troublesome Creek is a scrappy, enthralling, and frequently hilarious portrait of a taciturn midwestern American family in turmoil. The directors, Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher, are the daughter and son-in-law of the film's subjects, and hence it's as much a canny home movie as a somber treatise on the death of the family farm; there are moments here as telling and memorable as those in Hoop Dreams and Paris Is Burning -- equally fine films with more marketable subjects. I can't say that it blew me away -- very few documentaries do, and this one concludes a bit anticlimactically -- but I'm glad that I gave it a chance, and I urge you to do the same. A shaggy-dog story fleshed out with a ludicrous murderous-drug-kingpin subplot (complete with several boring chase scenes), GRIDLOCK'd, the feature directing debut of actor Vondie Curtis Hall, is notable mostly for the assured, dryly funny performance of the late Tupac Shakur, who, based on the evidence here and in Ernest Dickerson's Juice, could have eventually become quite a talented thespian; I wasn't very depressed about his murder at the time, but I am now. Like Kolya, the film is perfectly encapsulated by its tagline -- in this case, "Life is a traffic jam" -- and this one idea isn't quite substantial enough to act as the spine for a feature-length narrative; Brazil managed to say just as much about the nightmare of modern bureaucracy and paperwork in just a handful of short scenes, and Curtis Hall doesn't improve on the Circumlocution section of Dickens' Little Dorrit, either. Hence all the silly running about. The actors are in fine form, though, and there are two or three scenes that work as twisted, bitterly comic set pieces. A reasonable diversion.

Next week (in all likelihood): Cyclo, Saint Clara, Waiting for Guffman