The Man Who Viewed Too Much
21 July 1997


Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg
Adapted from the novel Contact by Carl Sagan
Rating: **

Star Maps

Written and directed by Miguel Arteta
Rating: *

4 Little Girls

Directed by Spike Lee
Rating: ***

For Ever Mozart

Written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Rating: * ½

Ratings are on a four-star scale

Contact is a movie about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. As the title implies, the search that's conducted in the movie eventually pays off; astronomers locate, and quickly decipher, what is unequivocally a deliberate message from an alien life form. I won't reveal the nature of this message (even though the trailers did), but I must admit that it wasn't at all what I was expecting. By the second reel, I was certain that before long some goofy-looking alien creatures would appear on one of the SETI monitors and recite in unison, in Alvin-and-the-Chipmunks-style helium-constricted voices, "We like your movies, Mr. Zemeckis. Especially the early, funny ones."

Robert Zemeckis won an Oscar in 1994 for directing Forrest Gump. I dearly hope that I'm mistaken, but I strongly suspect that most of his considerable talent is now locked within that ridiculous hunk of peer approval; in all likelihood, the commercial and critical success of Gump has ruined his career. Yes, he'll remain on the A-list for some time to come, and every two or three years he'll direct a big-budget movie featuring one or more of that year's most popular movie stars, and most of those movies will make a lot of money and please a lot of people. Nevertheless, I think he's finished. Once an uncommonly savvy and skilled entertainer -- I'd nominate the original Back to the Future as one of the greatest pure pop movies ever made, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit isn't far behind -- he's now committed to tackling weighty themes and matters of great import. He wants to edify and enlighten us, not "merely" to entertain. He's decided, in short, that he wants to be Important, like his friend and mentor, Steven Spielberg. Spielberg, to be fair, did eventually manage the transition, and so have a few others, notably Woody Allen (whose Stardust Memories, for those still puzzled, inspired the final sentence of the previous paragraph). More often, however, the result of such lofty ambition is calcification.

In Contact, this process has already begun. As science, it's often tremendously exciting (for the layman, anyway); the scene in which Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) first discovers the alien signal, and the hectic, jargon-filled scenes that follow, as she and her colleagues work to decode the message(s) it contains, are far and away the best part of the film. As drama, however, Contact is utterly inept, with an understanding of human behavior as limited and superficial as that seen in such goofy summer hits as The Lost World and Men in Black. The difference, of course, is that The Lost World (with Spielberg back in showman mode) and Men in Black couldn't care less about the human condition -- they're designed to make you scream and laugh, respectively. Contact, on the other hand, wants to make you think...but it's difficult to ponder the mysteries of the universe when you're busy wondering who the hell thought Arroway needed a dopey backstory equating her search for intelligent extraterrestrial life with her search for her dead father. ("Dad?? Dad?? Dad??" little Ellie plaintively inquires into her beloved shortwave radio after he keels over, while Zemeckis slowly pulls back and back and back, and your faithful critic struggles harder and harder and harder to suppress what would have been highly inappropriate gales of laughter.) Not having read Sagan's novel, I don't know whether he's to blame for this and other follies, or whether they should be laid at the door of Zemeckis and/or the picture's two screenwriters -- but somebody needs to have his head (or what remains of his head, as the case may be) examined.

"Are you finished yet?" I hear Contact's legion of admirers testily asking. I ain't even begun beginning, folks. Here's another of the many ways in which Contact squanders opportunities in its relentless quest to conform to Hollywood convention: early in the picture, Arroway is repeatedly thwarted in her attempts to secure radio telescope time for her project by an arrogant astronomer/bureaucrat named Drumlin (oily Tom Skerritt). Later, when Arroway makes her world-altering discovery, Drumlin smoothly steps into the limelight, taking the bulk of the credit in nationally televised interviews and more or less dismissing Arroway as a dutiful lackey. Naturally, we're expected to root for our intrepid protagonist to receive the notoriety she so richly deserves; and later, when she and Drumlin are both under consideration for a task that I'll pointlessly refrain from mentioning even though everybody who saw even a single TV commercial already knows what it is, we're supposed to be pluggin' for our Ellie. After all, the one immutable rule of big-budget American movies is that we must identify with and care about the fate of our cinematic heroes at all times.


Let us ignore, for the moment, how perfunctory all of this seems onscreen, and how much I longed for these manufactured conflicts to be over so that the more compelling aspects of the narrative could resume. Let us, instead, consider the ludicrous notion that we are supposed to give a flying fuck about who gets credit for the single most momentous discovery in recorded history. Let me, at least, be as clear as I possibly can: if intelligent life is discovered on a planet other than Earth, Billy Ray Cyrus can take the credit, for all I care ("Look at them stars/Them scintillatin' stars/Their planets teem with brainy life"). My concerns will be elsewhere, and they were elsewhere even within the context of this often silly film -- so much so that I found myself becoming angry with the filmmakers for wasting my time with the usual Syd Field hero-encounters-obstacles bullshit, instead of moving on to the profound questions with which Contact theoretically is concerned.

And speaking of those profound questions, the weary viewer must also contend with Matthew McConaughey, who is saddled with the unfortunate role of Palmer Joss, a hip religious hunk who both represents and espouses the notion of Faith, and also functions as a nominal romantic interest for Ms. Foster. I thought McConaughey was superb in small roles in Dazed and Confused and Lone Star, but this is the first time I've seen him onscreen at length (having skipped A Time to Justify Vigilantism last summer), and, to be blunt, he stinks up the joint (though I'm inclined to blame the ridiculous part he was asked to play more than the actor). Foster fares better, and she looks great in her smart-girl specs (that's the second immutable rule, actually: female scientists in the movies must wear glasses), but Arroway is too sketchy a character to allow Foster to truly break loose. She handles the scientific jargon with ease, and looks suitably awed when required, but this is a long way from the most challenging role she's ever tackled, and her Oscar nomination next year will be a reflection of her popularity and stature rather than an indication of her skill in this particular film. Other fine performers, including John Hurt, James Woods, and Angela Bassett, are completely wasted; though Hurt, at least, looks like he's having fun.

I've been very harsh with Contact here -- perhaps unduly harsh -- because I've rarely been so bitterly disappointed by a movie; it could have been, if not a masterpiece of the caliber of 2001: A Space Odyssey, at least a stirring and thrilling spectacle that would compare favorably to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Still, I must admit that there were aspects of it that I enjoyed, even if these were largely technical in nature. The opening shot, for example, is truly magical (far superior to that hokey feather at the beginning of Gump), wordlessly and eloquently conveying the film's thesis and making better use of total silence than any movie that I can readily call to mind. (Pity that the audience with which I saw Contact couldn't handle it -- lotsa nervous chatter and boorish catcalls.) There's another shot, involving a reflection in a medicine cabinet mirror, that struck me upon first viewing as literally impossible -- if anyone has any idea how Zemeckis did this, please let me know. As previously noted, there's a fairly long stretch in the first half of the picture, involving the discovery and decryption of the message, that genuinely crackles (it's like the scientific equivalent of the great newsroom comedies of the '30s, with everybody jabbering incomprehensibly at once). And I was startled and elated to find that a major studio had the guts to make a movie in which the protagonist is an atheist (though they still shy away from allowing her to openly say, when asked, "No, I don't believe in God"). The film may often be intolerably stupid (I don't have time, sadly, to discuss the utterly moronic revelation at film's end; I made a Usenet post to that effect back in mid-July, and you can search for it in DejaNews if you're curious), but it's never boring, and while that may not be much, it is, in fact, something.

Zemeckis remains a master craftsman, and, like Jim Cameron, he's constantly working to expand the boundaries of what can appear to physically occur onscreen. Cameron, however, is smart enough to remain in genre films, where he belongs (Titanic, which I obviously haven't yet seen, possibly excepted). My advice to Zemeckis is this: rent a copy of Rob Reiner's This Is Spinal Tap. When you've recovered from your hernia, rent a copy of Reiner's recent Ghosts of Mississippi.. When you've recovered from your coma, take a look at the Oscar up on your mantelpiece, or wherever, and remind yourself that you've already made your mark in film history, even if it was for the wrong film. Consider further that nobody gives a damn about 1936 Best Picture winner The Great Ziegfeld anymore, but we still revere the allegedly flimsy and forgettable Marx Brothers comedy A Night at the Opera, released just a few months earlier. Then think long and hard about what you might want to do next.

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One of the reasons that Contact makes for such a frustrating viewing experience is that it vacillates so jarringly between the magnificent and the moronic; some of you may prefer a movie that chooses a quality level and runs with it. Those looking for the sublime or near-sublime should investigate these puppies here, at least a couple of which are surely playing in your neighborhood. If it's unadulterated ineptitude you seek, on the other hand, look no further than Star Maps, which rivals Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. as the most blatantly amateurish indie film ever to inexplicably attract a distributor. This one, at least, doesn't feature the boom op's shadow in every other shot (note to Leslie Harris, if she's still trying to make movies: those big bright things are called "lights"; those other people on the set are your "crew"; and one of your goals as director is to keep the "crew" out of the way of the "lights" while the camera is "rolling"), but that's about as competent as it ever gets.

Some folks are willing to cut shoestring indies a great deal of slack, on the grounds that it's hard to make a modern classic on $27 and some loose change. As someone who's worked on a no-budget feature, I can sympathize to a certain degree; at the same time, however, I've seen too many first-rate cheapo films, ranging from Jarmusch's deadpan Stranger than Paradise to Stillman's elegant Metropolitan to Rodriguez's hyperactive El Mariachi, to be willing to overlook the sort of wooden acting, hackneyed screenwriting, and what's-that-big-thing-on-the-tripod-do? direction exhibited in Miguel Arteta's ludicrous debut. Nor am I willing to make allowances, as I suspect many do, simply because the filmmaker and his cast belong to a minority which is far too infrequently represented onscreen. I feel their pain (as much as a semi-affluent white guy can, anyway), and I wish them success in making better movies in future, but their good intentions don't alter the fact that their work stinks, and I'm not inclined to pretend that it doesn't in order to promote a political good.

Star Maps' troubles begin with its premise, which only a mad genius like Buñuel could probably have made watchable. Teenager Carlos (Douglas Spain) returns to Los Angeles after a protracted stay in Mexico, hoping to become the next Antonio Banderas. His father, Pepe (Efrain Figueroa), promises to introduce him to a few movers and shakers, provided that he agrees to work for the family business for a while. The family business, it turns out, is prostitution. Carlos and the others stand around on L.A. street corners hawking their wares: maps to celebrities' homes, if you're a vice cop; themselves, if you're looking to indulge a vice. Carlos quickly hooks up with a famous soap star, Jennifer (Kandeyce Jensen), who promises him a bit part on her show in exchange for sexual favors ("I just want a poor Mexican boy to fuck my brains out" is a typical sample of the film's keen dialogue). But Pepe, who makes the Marquis de Sade look more and more like Mister Rogers as the picture progresses, is not exactly eager to see his son succeed.

This material is so explosive that it needed to be handled with the utmost care, and Arteta's touch is fatally clumsy. For one thing, none of the people who he chose to cast in his movie can act, which tends to be something of a drawback. The Village Voice's Amy Taubin, bizarrely, refers in her review of the film to Spain's "catatonic appeal," a phrase which strikes me as an oxymoron; I concur with the adjective, but not the noun. Jensen, playing a soap star, doesn't seem to understand that Star Maps is not itself intended to be a soap. The less said about Martha Velez, as Carlos' hallucination-prone mother; or musician Lysa Flores, as his saintly sister Maria; or whichever actor played their semi-retarded brother, whose name I can't recall (the actor or the character); or about any of the various subplots involving these caricatures, the better. Figueroa, alone, seems to have some talent, but he's playing a man so utterly monstrous that he offers gentle, soft-spoken Maria to her dweeby suitor at the dinner table for fifty bucks. It's a tough sell that a father, however despicable, would sell his own kids' bodies without a moment's hesitation, and neither Arteta's overripe script nor Figueroa's energetic but hammy performance make this guy's perversity believable. Nor can Arteta redeem the histrionics with blistering style, since he barely understands how to shoot a simple two-shot. Most of the movie, which was clearly intended to be provocative and disturbing, is simply laughable. (Imagine Blue Velvet directed by Tony Scott to get a sense of how unintentionally hilarious it becomes.)

By the time Carlos' plum role as a sexy Mexican gardener had been given to portly Pepe, who called in a favor from the show's producer in order to spite his rebellious son, I was openly howling, unconcerned that Arteta himself might be within earshot (it was a preview screening at which he answered questions afterwards). Pepe using his alleged influence (the existence of which I never bought either, but never mind) to scuttle Carlos' shot at stardom...okay. Pepe casting himself in the role, so that Arteta can stage a climactic backstage father/son fistfight...please. Fox Searchlight, which paid $2.5 million for the distribution rights for Star Maps after it debuted at Sundance in January, is apparently under the impression that there's a market for Latinos plus bare breasts plus sordid family melodrama, regardless of whether or not the sum of those elements makes for either art or entertainment. Somebody over there needs to locate a brighter bulb.

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IN BRIEF: Spike Lee's first documentary, 4 Little Girls, only increases my already immense respect for him. In 1982, while still an NYU grad student, he planned to make a movie about the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four children and became a defining moment in the civil rights movement. At the time, because he was a nobody, the families of the victims weren't interested in cooperating; incredibly, 15 years later, at a time when he can make pretty much whatever movies he likes, he launched the project again. There's nothing radical or innovative about 4 Little Girls, which features the usual interviews, stock footage, montages of stills, and such, but then innovation isn't required -- the film functions as a reminder, and one that seems even more vital today than it did in '82, what with black churches burning to the ground seemingly every other Sunday. Lee being Lee, there are a few bizarre missteps: he pointlessly allows a borderline-senile George Wallace to make a fool of himself on-camera, which adds nothing to our understanding of racism or Wallace and seems motivated entirely by revenge; and also interviews Bill Cosby, for no reason that I can discern except to find out what a Famous Black Entertainer has to say about the tragedy (though the fact that Cosby's son Ennis was recently murdered does lend a certain poignancy, perhaps unintentional, to his brief remarks). It doesn't matter, though, because every time one of the dead girls' relatives appears in the frame, your eyes begin welling up with tears. Whatever Lee's political motivations for making it, in the end this is a film about grief. It's heartbreaking. There are two schools of thought about Godard's recent work, and I belong to the one that thinks it impenetrable pseudo-philosophical gibberish. For Ever Mozart, his latest, initially has something to do with a troupe of French actors who travel to Sarajevo to put on a play and are brutally slaughtered, and then metamorphoses into two or three other "stories," all of which feature bland characters reciting arid dialogue like "Is the history of Europe in the 1990s a simple rehearsal, with slight symphonic variations, on the cowardice and chaos of the 1930s?" I dunno, Jean-Luc -- write your thesis down in a coherent essay, and I'll consider it. Shot in Geneva (including the scenes set in former Yugoslavia, incredibly), the film is, at least, eerily beautiful, which is the only thing that kept me in my seat. For Ever Mozart is the cinematic equivalent of Finnegan's Wake: a dense thicket of ideas in which all but the most hardy and tenacious travelers are bound to become lost and frustrated. As Austin Powers would say, this kind of thing ain't my bag, baby. If it's yours, don't mind me.

Next time (in all likelihood): Box of Moonlight, In the Company of Men, Mrs Brown, Murder at 1600