The General opens with an assassination. A pudgy, balding, middle-aged man (Brendan Gleeson) leaves his house, looks warily over his shoulder, gets in his car, starts the motor, checks out the view from the side window, and locks eyes with his killer, who is drawing his gun as he runs toward his intended victim. The killer fires once, twice, three times. The car rolls slowly, then stops. A motorcycle drives up, the killer leaps on the back. Through the shattered car window, we see the victim’s face in close-up, blood streaming from the bullet hole in his temple. People— family, neighbors, cops— crowd around the car. There’s a cutaway to police headquarters— cops celebrating that “Tango one is down.” We see the dead man carried away on a stretcher. And then this odd thing happens. We again see the dead man, but it’s as if he’s come back to life, again looking out the car’s side window and locking eyes with his killer. This time, however, the sequence is running backwards; the killer is pocketing, rather than pulling, his gun. For a moment, we see a close-up of the man in the car again, his face slowly dissolving into the face of an adolescent boy.
We’ve entered a flashback that will last until the the film comes full circle in its final seconds. And while the flashback structure in itself isn’t unusual, the way in which it’s announced— with that little reverse-time clip— makes us aware that there’s a sophisticated filmmaker at work here, someone with a mastery of the expressive possibilities of what is handily referred to as film language.
Based on the life of Martin Cahill, the Dublin master criminal whose lifetime loot was valued at around $60 million and included the only privately owned Vermeer in the world, The General is written and directed by John Boorman, and it’s something of a comeback, his most sharply executed film since Deliverance. Shot in color but printed on black-and-white stock, it has an old-fashioned, fine-grained luminosity that’s reminiscent of ’30s studio pictures like Scarface.
An underworld anomaly, Cahill had contempt for the sanctioned authority of church and state and for the I.R.A. and the Loyalist undergrounds as well. He lived in a ménage à trois with his wife and her sister, and fathered children with both of them. When he was gunned down in the mid ’80s, the I.R.A. claimed responsibility; Cahill had infuriated them by selling a stolen painting to the Loyalists. Having held himself above the Irish troubles, he is nevertheless destroyed by them in the end.
Although his crimes were flamboyant, Cahill made his identity a mystery. He was never seen in public without a hood shrouding his face. The most memorable images in the film are the close-ups of Gleeson with his hand over his face, eyes peering through spread fingers.
Gleeson, who’s nearly a double for the real-life Cahill, finds innumerable shades for the anger that drives the man. At first, he’s exuberant, cocky, and quick-witted, but he turns paranoid and depressive when his gang abandons him and the community turns against him. An explosive mix of rebel and reactionary, he tolerates no rule except his own. His audacity would be irresistible if he weren’t so brutal. (I can’t believe those two women were as pleased with their situation as the film makes them out to be.)
Cahill should be right up Boorman’s alley, the larger-than-life, rogue male who sets up a breakaway patriarchy that mimics the very system it’s out to trash. But despite the fascinating character, and some bravura scenes (among them a spectacular jewelry-factory heist), the film is flat. Boorman’s stand vis-à-vis his protagonist is so ambivalent as to be nonexistent. And without a clear point of view, the artful filmmaking reads as decoration. The General is a refined, traditional movie about a character who is never more traditional than when he imagines himself outside the law. It’s a great paradox, but it barely comes alive on the screen.
Few films could be further from The General than Heather Johnston and Gordon Eriksen’s Lena’s Dreams. A no-budget, no-frills portrait of a Cuban American actress in crisis, it’s a film John Cassavetes almost certainly would have loved, and not just because his Opening Night is such a clear influence. As filmmakers, Johnston and Eriksen wear their hearts and politics on their sleeves. There’s an enthusiasm and sense of purpose in all their films that has to do with putting difference— sexual difference, racial difference, and to a lesser degree, class difference— out front.
Lena’s Dreams is the third, and easily the most focused, film they’ve made. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have awkward moments (the first 15 minutes are remarkably unpromising) or that it’s chock-full of aesthetic pleasure. But it’s bold, resourceful, honest, and smart, and, more than any film besides Opening Night, it gets inside the process of acting and all the craziness that’s part of a great acting talent.
Except for a few flashbacks, the film takes place within a single day, the day that Lena (Marlene Forte) turns 32. Lena’s been pounding the pavement for years. She’s confident of her talent but she also knows that great parts for Latinas who don’t do what Jennifer Lopez does for a skirt are almost nonexistent. Years ago, she promised her boyfriend Mike (Gary Perez) that if she didn’t make it by the time she reached 30, she’d quit. Now she’s two years past her deadline, and she’s still addicted to the hope that tomorrow everything will change. Every callback is a fix, and because Lena’s an exciting actress, she gets lots of those. But she’s never landed a role commensurate with her talent. “I’m too middle-class to play a maid and too ethnic to play middle-class?” she inquires scornfully of the casting agent who has just rejected her. It’s the first of many bridges she burns on the day she decides to give up acting. She kisses off her manager, her answering service, her boyfriend. And she doesn’t change course even when she finds out that she’s been cast as the female lead in the big Broadway show (Castro starring Andy Garcia) she’d auditioned for weeks earlier. It’s mad, it’s nearly tragic, and it’s just what an actor has to do when she creates a role— choose an action and follow it through no matter where it leads.
Working on a minimal budget, Johnston and Eriksen shot the film in very long takes with a hand-held camera (their cinematographer Armando Basulto is a wiz). It’s a dangerous choice— and it doesn’t always work— but it’s also wildly appropriate because it lets the actors (rather than an editor) determine the pace and the momentum of each scene. Forte, a fiercely concentrated performer with a big emotional range and a deft sense of humor, rises to the occasion. She builds a character before our eyes, exposing the process whereby she makes Lena’s dreams her own. The film is unimaginable without her.