Journey Men


When I was about eight years old, a boy in my class requested my company after school to play with his erection set. Oblivious to the snickering of his friends, I responded with the smugness of a budding intellectual, “You mean erector set, don’t you?” Scarcely had the words left my lips when I realized that I had walked into some sexual minefield, although of what nature I was unclear. I blushed, panicked, and fled. When I recall the incident today, I feel as horribly confused and as embarrassed by my naïveté as I was then.

I make this disclosure, dear reader, so that you will understand why I’m unable to be completely impartial in my assessment of Wild Wild West, a movie that plays the erection/erector set association to the hilt. Given the tangle of my psyche, I even considered refusing this assignment entirely. But since Wild Wild West is so extremely stupid and incompetent, I doubt that even the most impartial critic could find much to praise. Unless, of course, they themselves are fixated at the erection-set stage of development. And by the way, are erector sets still popular with young boys? I haven’t seen them featured in toy store windows in a long time. And if not, for whom did the powers behind this picture imagine they were making it?

Actually, the answer should be obvious to anyone who knows how studio movies come into being. Wild Wild West was created to please the audience whose Fourth of July weekend would be incomplete without seeing Will Smith save the Republic from aliens. But since Smith had already gone mano a mano with standard-issue extraterrestrials in Independence Day and Men in Black, some higher concept was needed. We may never know who among the four credited screenwriters and the two writers who share the ambiguous “story by” credit arrived at the inspired notion of sending Smith back into the post–Civil War era (great possibilities for costumes, not to mention quips about slavery) and making him a federal marshal on the trail of a renegade Confederate veteran—a half-flesh, half-metal creature bent on overthrowing the government and selling the U.S. piecemeal to the highest foreign bidders.

It’s awesome to think that a mere mortal, or even a half-dozen mere mortals, could have arrived at a concept so ripe with genre possibilities, every one of which seems to have been brought into play for at least a minute or two in the pricey ($100 million plus) hodgepodge that is Wild Wild West. There’s a James Bond secret-service gadgetry adventure crossed with a Jules Verne sci-fi gadgetry adventure; a mad-scientist horror flick crossed with a kickboxing cowboy shoot-’em-up. There are, in fact, so many genres competing for attention that there’s no time to develop any semblance of plot or characters.

Ham-fisted even in his most stylish efforts (Men in Black and Get Shorty), Barry Sonnenfeld lacks the directorial abandon to pull off delirious Monty Python–esque undoings of time and space, which would have been the only way to handle the every-which-way anachronisms of the script. There are hints that he tried. An early scene involving a decapitation is strangely recalled much later in the film in a scene where Smith cross-dresses as Salomé and shakes his booty in lieu of removing his seven veils. More notably, our hero, who is introduced in a scene where the enemy is struck dumb by a full-frontal view of his naked bod (a view that we, unhappily, do not share), soon confronts the film’s archvillain who blew his lower body to bits during an experiment and now relies on various erector set–like metal machines to make him into a whole man. The largest of these is an 80-foot-high, eight-legged contraption dubbed the Tarantula, which rattles across Monument Valley as monstrously as Godzilla thuds around Midtown.

Played by Kenneth Branagh and Ted Levine, the Grand Guignol–style bad guys of Wild Wild West are so massively disfigured as to suggest that someone got an early peek at Thomas Harris’s Hannibal. Levine has the wit to understand that when you have a rheumy eye and a guck-spewing trumpet affixed to the side of your head in lieu of an ear, the less acting you do the better. Branagh, however, is his usual insufferable mix of flat affect and hammy vocalization. As the putative love interest, Salma Hayek is only around to inspire an endless stream of “boobie” jokes. Same goes for the gun-toting Rhine Maidens in Branagh’s personal guard. (Since the film lacks even the suggestion of characters, I think it’s a fairer indication of what takes place on the screen to refer to the actors by their own names.)

As Smith’s sidekick, Kevin Kline, a witty and inventive comic actor (whose much-lauded Hamlet, however, was nearly as dull as Branagh’s), tries to make himself as inconspicuous as possible, which, under the circumstances, is a wise choice. But it leaves Smith to carry the whole misbegotten enterprise on his graceful shoulders. Smith has terrific presence and charm to spare, and he moves as well as any actor around
excepting Jeff Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones. It doesn’t help him here, however, that his rhythms are undermined by Elmer Bernstein’s plodding score or that he’s required to deliver some of the worst one-liners ever written. Still, there’s no doubt that he has the charisma of a star, a distinction that may doom him to a career of movies as dumb and pointless as this one.

Scruffy and ingenuous—and not just by Wild Wild West standards—Roko Belic’s Genghis Blues is a documentary about Paul Pena, a blind San Francisco blues musician who trained himself in the art of Tuvan throat-singing after hearing a Tuvan recording on his shortwave radio. (Tuva is a tiny country on the border of Mongolia that enjoyed about 20 years of autonomy until it was taken over by China in the mid ’40s.) In throat-singing, the vocal cords produce two or three different notes simultaneously—you harmonize with yourself without the aid of a multitrack mixer. Pena also taught himself the Tuvan language through a complicated process that involved two braille dictionaries—an English to Russian and a Russian to Tuvan—since no English to Tuvan one exists. When a group of Tuvan singers came to San Francisco on a concert tour, Pena was ready for them. They were so impressed by the way he sang their music and incorporated throat-singing into his own mix of blues and folk that they nicknamed him Earthquake (for the sound he made) and invited him to Tuva to participate in the annual throat-singing competition.

Largely a record of that trip, Genghis Blues is not only an ebullient music documentary but a fairly unsettling portrait of a tenacious artist who, aside from a brief success in the ’60s, lived in poverty and isolation until he was discovered by a community of musicians in the most distant part of the world.

Genghis Blues is best when it sticks to straightforwardly recording Pena’s onstage performances and his moving interactions with his Tuvan hosts. When Belic tries to liven things up with memory montages or even tiny cutaways, his inexperience as a filmmaker becomes painfully evident. But basically he’s done right by Pena, and that’s what matters. With a better
camera, and some practice (Pena
practiced throat-singing for 15 years and says he was still terrified when he took the stage in Tuva), have more to rely on than his natural empathy.