One of the most-praised dramatic features of the 1999 Sundance Festival, Judy Berlin has intimations of soft apocalypse. Eric Mendelsohn’s debut film is a carefully assembled, quasi-autobiographical mood-piece that, shot in meditative black and white, aspires to place a mid-Long Island suburb in the light of eternity. (Alas, Babylon—I knew it well.)
David Denby exhorted historically minded distributors to “seize the chance to be a part of Eric Mendelsohn’s future” in his New Yorker Sundance report. Judy Berlin is, however, more a wistful look back at the artist’s past. Not as caustic in his suburbanations as fellow SUNY Purchase grad Hal Hartley, Mendelsohn embodies his ambivalence in two thirtyish showbiz wannabes. The cheerfully crass aspiring actress Judy Berlin (Sopranos star Edie Falco) is finally leaving Long Island for L.A. even as her glum erstwhile classmate David Gold (Aaron Harnick) winds up back home, nursing some unrevealed psychic wound and dreaming of unmade movies.
Gently schematic, Judy Berlin unfolds on the afternoon of a total eclipse that—the cosmic clock having frozen—plunges Babylon and environs into hours of unscheduled darkness. It’s a scenario for the end of the world but Mendelsohn’s dramatic structure more suggests a class excursion to a petting zoo where a few harmless animals roam free. David’s high-strung mother sings of being 16 again. (Making the most of her last screen role, Madeline Kahn gives her unstable character a poignant, strident edge.) Meanwhile a retired teacher in the early stages of memory loss revisits her old classroom and there causes a scene. Judy wanders around town saying her goodbyes; David merely wanders until the inevitable: “David Gold? This is so freaky!”
Mendelsohn is acute on the embarrassment of reencountering a high-school ghost some dozen years after graduation supposedly exorcised them all. He’s less convincing on the chemistry that’s meant to exist between these antithetical types. Judy’s a gregarious extrovert, David’s depressed and judgmental. The actors, perhaps encouraged to play dumb, overheat the connection until the movie blows a fuse. Harnick’s morose theatricality serves to encourage Falco’s wild face-pulling. She widens her eyes to accentuate her outsized features, flashing a foolish clown smile to show off her adult braces.
Drawn to Judy’s vulgar energy, David visits the local History Village where she works as a colonial milkmaid, and together they experience the magical eclipse. David is still puzzled that Judy, who wears her costume throughout, was a high-school tough girl: “I mean—aren’t you Jewish?” Less successful for being overly stagy, a parallel interaction involves David’s father (Bob Dishy), the defensively dithering principal of the elementary school, and Judy’s dourly officious mother (Barbara Barrie), who is a teacher there. Invoking a lifetime of might-have-beens, their scenes have a discordant Broadway polish. “Do you understand that I don’t know what I’m doing?” he asks. Indeed, she does.
David, however, knows exactly what he’s doing. His dark secret is that he has always yearned to make a documentary about daily life in an American suburb, something celebratory—”nothing sarcastic.” This would-be symphony of the quotidian—the town lovingly photographed and dusted with sparkly harpsichord music—is his dream film. And, conveniently disappearing into the night, Judy is the bravely deluded muse who inspired him.
A bit precious, ultimately wearisome, Judy Berlin deserves to alternate reels with Lodge Kerrigan’s even more pretentious Amerindie, Claire Dolan. Indeed, in a more perfect universe, Claire Dolan would be the feature in which Judy got her break.
Like Kerrigan’s first feature, the genuinely disturbing Clean, Shaven (1993), Claire Dolan—opening for a week at the Walter Reade before its release by New Yorker Films—is a character study about an ostentatiously opaque character. The film is impeccably shot and utterly absurd. Superstudied telephoto compositions map a cold urban geometry of steel furniture and rippling reflections. Katrin Cartlidge, most familiar for her garrulous roles in Mike Leigh’s Naked and Career Girls, has here been silenced, playing a high-class hooker who operates out of an East Side apartment with the charm of a dentist’s waiting room.
Claire Dolan is hardly a slice of life. Once you buy into the idea of a call girl without a cell phone or even a beeper—when first seen, Claire is working a grimy midtown pay phone—anything is possible. Clients don’t call her, she calls them, professing her desire and promising unimaginable pleasures in a flat monotone. Embodied by Cartlidge as dourly antierotic, she’s gawky and severe, squinting balefully at her tricks as she’s metaphorically nailed on the grid of a heartless city. In short, Claire (who owes money to her unctuously solicitous pimp until suddenly she doesn’t) is an abstract entity.
Kerrigan’s dialogue is as purposefully stilted as his mise-en-scène is aggressively antiseptic. This supremely alienated movie can’t decide if it’s Crash or Working Girls or maybe Jeanne Dielmann in reverse. Every interaction is tortuous—Claire’s numerous sexual encounters not the least. At one point, she escapes to Newark, gets a new job, and picks up a sensitive cabbie named Elton (played by a smirking Vincent D’Onofrio as if without direction). Then, operating by some mysterious radar, her bluff, hearty pimp (Colm Meaney) comes to fetch her home, reinforcing his ruthlessness by casually tossing a pet kitty out the window.
Clean, Shaven demonstrated Kerrigan’s intermittent brilliance. (Here, the movie jumps to life when Elton, in a scarily intense burst of adrenaline, is robbed in his cab.) But, even more than his heroine, the filmmaker seems boxed in by his own schemata. Less awful than inert, Claire Dolan comes across as a willfully bad movie. The moment of maximum stupefaction arrives when Claire affectlessly announces her desire. “I want to have a child,” she abruptly informs Elton, adding without inflection, “we can make it work.” Her conviction is underwhelming.
Those in search of an energy fix could do worse than Don McGlynn’s Louis Prima: The Wildest, a big smoochy valentine to one of the most resilient American entertainers of the 20th century which, having had its local premiere at the Margaret Mead, opens a week from Friday at Cinema Village. Born in New Orleans, the wildly energetic Prima was a trumpet-playing, hoarse-voiced scat singer—a white disciple of Louis Armstrong (whom I don’t believe the movie ever mentions). Discovered by Guy Lombardo in the ’30s, Prima helped establish 52nd Street as a Dixieland mecca. He wrote the swing blockbuster “Sing, Sing, Sing,” relocated to Hollywood, and dated Jean Harlow. A crony recalls his response to the actress’s untimely death: “I think he was sad.”
The movie is similarly taciturn on other biographical subjects, but Prima’s call and response clowning has near universal appeal. Always looking for an audience, he recorded in Italian, played the Apollo, and made the transition from big-band swing to proto-rock ‘n’ roll. Most spectacularly, Prima reinvented himself as a Las Vegas hepcat, abetted by the impassive vocalist Keely Smith and frantic saxophonist Sam Butera. He was still limber enough to jump on the Twist and even provide Walt Disney with a star vocal turn in The Jungle Book. Nor was that the end. McGlynn’s performance-rich doc appears to have been made too soon to acknowledge Prima’s posthumous assist to the most successful Gap ad in history.