Cruel and Unusual

Ultimately, Kaufman's Sade is less the "freest man who ever lived" (as the Surrealists thought him) than an artist deprived of his art—a First Amendment martyr. Less ambiguous on-screen than onstage, Quills is an anticensorship manifesto—even a defense of Hollywood. (Kaufman's far sexier Henry and June was the movie that first compelled the industry to invent the scarlet NC-17 and then unfairly suffered the consequences for it.) Quills argues that, when it comes to culture, downtrodden workers like Madeleine need the rough stuff to hold their interest. Moreover, for healthy people—although not necessarily the unstable inmates of Charenton—Sade's hyperbolic, even pornographic, tales of rape and torture provide a useful form of sublimation.

As Madeleine explains to the abbé when he questions her taste in literature, "If I wasn't such a bad woman on the page, I couldn't be such a good woman in my life." I look forward to hearing some young movie fan paraphrase that line during the next round of congressional hearings.


Porn yesterday: Quills’ Rush at rest in the shock corridor
photo: David Appleby
Porn yesterday: Quills’ Rush at rest in the shock corridor

Details

Quills
Directed by Philip Kaufman
Written by Doug Wright, from his play
A Fox Searchlight release

How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Directed by Ron Howard
Written by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman, from the book by Dr. Seuss
A Universal release

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Is the Grinch, that nasty creature who steals Christmas from the Who people in the celebrated Dr. Seuss book, a sadist? He rejects prevailing religious dogma, suffers a sort of solitary imprisonment, abuses his pet dog, appears to take pleasure in self-abnegation, and—especially in the current movie version—captivates a fearless and innocent young girl.

Expensively expanded from Seuss (and the half-hour Chuck Jones animation that has been a TV staple for three decades), How the Grinch Stole Christmas would seem to be director Ron Howard's bid for immortality. The movie is intended to be a perennial that will flower at the box office every holiday season. Considerable effort has gone into the production: Whoville is a regular Emerald City whose inhabitants are tricked out with adorable prosthetic snouts—except for the little girl, who has a towering hairdo and oversize front teeth. The art design is suitably Seussian and impressively total—although, more dutiful than inventive, it's no Nightmare Before Christmas. The movie is perhaps 20 minutes too long and subject to torpor.

As the Grinch, Jim Carrey is, initially at least, unrecognizably green and hairy, with his entire face masked and a mouth full of mismatched teeth. (This hellish costume would surely be sufficient to turn anyone into a grinch—or worse.) It requires some concentration to even find Carrey beneath his makeup, but he's there, albeit too often restricted to do much more than merely strike poses. The movie rises to another level whenever its star has a chance to cut loose—leading the ensemble in a conga line, winning a sack race in slow motion, torching the Whos' Christmas tree while screaming, "Burn baby burn," and otherwise directing the inmates of Whoville in a diabolical drama of his own devising.


Speaking of brave young girls: The African Diaspora Film Festival, which opens Friday at Anthology Film Archives, offers (among many intriguing programs) a second chance to see the late Djibril Diop Mambety's bold and splashy Little Girl Who Sold the Sun, as well as a documentary on the making of this self-described "hymn to the courage of street children." Although only 45 minutes, this final film completed by the visionary Senegalese director sticks in my mind as one of the year's top dozen or so movies.

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