Directors on the Verge

Bowfinger, the character Steve Martin plays in the new comedy of the same name, is a particularly contemporary figure—the ridiculously persistent independent filmmaker. Like the overreaching Heather of The Blair Witch Project and the dogged subject of the upcoming doc American Movie, untalented Bobby Bowfinger hustles his way towards Sundance like a vine spiralling to catch the sun.

Bowfinger opens with its crackbrained hero hunkered down in his dank Hollywood bungalow, surrounded by tacky memorabilia, dodging bill collectors and plotting how to produce Chubby Rain, the moronic extraterrestrial- invasion script written by his even more dim-witted accountant. Pretending that action icon Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy) has signed onto the project, Bowfinger rallies his usual collection of losers and holds a paid audition that yields an ambitious would-be starlet, Daisy (Heather Graham). Then he sneaks across the border to round up an illegal-alien crew and begins stalking Ramsey—his scheme is to incorporate secretly filmed footage of the star unwittingly interacting with the Bowfinger stock company.

A group of young Soviet filmmakers had a similar idea in the mid 1920s, using newreels taken of the American superstars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford on a visit to Moscow to make them unwitting characters in their own movie. But Bowfinger, which Martin wrote, is clearly inspired by the legendary bargain-basement bad movie auteur Edward D. Wood Jr., particularly as he was projected in Tim Burton's 1994 biopic. A true believer in movie magic, Wood completed his preposterous Plan 9 From Outer Space without the presence of his leading man Bela Lugosi by mismatching a few old shots of the recently deceased star with a highly unsuitable body double.

Details

Bowfinger
Directed by Frank Oz
Written by Steve Martin
A Universal Pictures release
Opens August 13

Les Bonnes Femmes
Directed by Claude Chabrol
Written by Chabrol and Paul Ggauff
A Kino International release
At the Walter Reade, August 1319

Cruel Story of Youth
Written and directed by Nagisa Oshima
A New Yorker Film release
At Film Forum, August 1319

No less optimistic, Bowfinger inhabits Ed Wood territory with a sub-Woodian gang of dopey starstruck sidekicks. The difference is that Wood was some sort of skid-row visionary while Bowfinger has no more conviction than the power of Martin's trademark fake sincerity. Alternately innocent and sly, either demonstrating inane faith or conning his way with vague directorial doubletalk, Bowfinger is a plot device whose mentality shifts as the scene or joke requires. When one of his more credulous associates wonders how Ramsey could be starring in Chubby Rain but be seemingly unaware of it, Bowfinger explains that "Tom Cruise had no idea he was in that vampire movie until two years later."

Indeed, Bowfinger is less intriguing as filmmaker fantasy than celebrity nightmare. The tightly wrapped, compulsively exhibitionist, already paranoid Ramsey—who is controlled by a high-powered therapeutic cult—freaks when Bowfinger's looniest actress (Christine Baranski) approaches him on Rodeo Drive, babbling about aliens from outer space in what he later describes to his cult controller (Terence Stamp) as "some secret white language." Crazy and getting crazier, Ramsey is driven to imagine that he is living inside Bowfinger's cheap remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. When he is secreted away into cult seclusion, Murphy gets to play a second role as the nerdy stand-in recruited by the ever-pragmatic Bowfinger.

Toward the end, director Frank Oz moves the show up to Griffith Observatory for the manic Chubby Rain climax, but Bowfinger itself never hits a note of high hilarity. The genially mediocre direction blunts whatever bite the script might have had. Oz and Martin are mischievous in sending up Scientology but, as a Hollywood satire, Bowfinger doesn't begin to approach Albert Brooks's The Muse, which opens in two weeks.

Bowfinger sustains a level of mild amusement throughout. It's no small thing but no big deal either. The best routine may be the extended punchline—an elaborate bit of fake kung fu that underlines the movie's vaudeville dependence on ethnic stereotypes, even as it allows Martin to revisit his past with a bit of physical comedy at once nostalgic and mean-spirited.

Although Bowfinger suggests that the whole desire to make movies is at best self-serving and at worst absurd, there were other ambitions back when the New Wave was new—witness the current revivals of two precociously brilliant efforts, Claude Chabrol's Les Bonnes Femmes and Nagisa Oshima's Cruel Story of Youth (both 1960).

Shifting mood in the New Wave manner, Les Bonnes Femmes is a crime film that devotes most of its time to the quasi-documentary examination of four young Parisiennes—clownish Bernadette Lafont, elegant Stéphane Audran, dreamy Clotilde Joano, and stoical Lucile Saint-Simon—all of whom work at the same neighborhood appliance store. Les Bonnes Femmes is a New Wave fantasy in that it provided Chabrol the pretext for directing four pretty young actresses but it's also a portrait of thwarted generational aspirations. The women are harassed by their boringly lecherous old boss and most of the film's males are fools.

Les Bonnes Femmes is reminiscent of its better-known peers, Breathless and Shoot the Piano Player, in its location shooting, playful use of music, and intermittent high spirits. But, Audran's unexpected (and literal) star turn notwithstanding, there's little here that's self-reflexive and no cinephilic homages, apart from the incongruous Zero de Conduite quotation that contributes to the shock ending. As a Cahiers du Cinema critic, Chabrol had analyzed Rear Window and polemicized in favor of "little themes." Although Les Bonnes Femmes demonstrates a Hitchcockian knack for implicating the spectator—most obviously in the scene in which the heroines are harassed, at some length, by a pair of obnoxious boors in a public swimming pool—the movie has a surplus of incident and an absence of plot.

In the end, however, every haphazard digression, from the creepy "fetish" kept by the appliance store's middle-aged cashier to the lunch hour the shopgirls spend in the zoo, comes together in a trap as implacable as anything in the thrillers Chabrol admired. Deeply unsettling, Les Bonnes Femmes manages a dialectic between the freewheeling and fatalistic unlike anything else in Chabrol's oeuvre.

Even more provocative, Nagisa Oshima's Cruel Story of Youth did more than any other movie to establish the notion of a Japanese new wave. On its home ground, the director's third feature must have seemed like a local Rebel Without a Cause—it's set in a student milieu, populated by teenage gangs, and driven by adolescent risk-taking. As filmmaking, this wide-screen, candy-colored extravaganza is directed with considerable brio and filled with bold metaphors. Oshima splatters his title credits on a newspaper and films a scene against an actual student demonstration. His alienated antihero pushes the provocative antiheroine into polluted water as a prelude to satisfying her sexual curiosity. (Later, they celebrate their love by riding a stolen motorbike into the ocean.)

Oshima was 28, two years younger than Chabrol, when he made Cruel Story of Youth, and his movie is even more bitter in its generational politics. But if Oshima's worldview is basically Marxist—or Reichian—and Chabrol's fundamentally Catholic, they are equally extreme in their social disgust. Both linking love and death, their movies are equally predicated on the spectacle of powerless men preying upon even weaker women. Such romantic antiromantic politics are dated, to be sure, but what's even more anachronistic about these two movies is their absence of cynicism and even careerism.

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