Just in time to put Lars Von Trier and his hype-happy Dogma spawn in perspective, Rob Nilsson’s 1996 Chalk—an Oedipal drama so raw it feels like falling facedown onto a pile of bricks—is finally getting a New York opening. Nilsson, whose first movie, Northern Lights, won the Cannes Camera d’Or in 1979, has been shooting features on video and transferring them to 35mm for release since the mid ’80s. Signal 7 (1985) exposed the world of nighttime San Francisco cabbies. Heat and Sunlight (1988), a Sundance Grand Prize winner, plunged into the obsessions attendant on the end of a love affair.
For the past 10 years, Nilsson has been the creative force behind the Tenderloin Action Group, an acting workshop mostly for street people from San Francisco’s skid row. Chalk grew out of Nilsson’s involvement with the group, where video is used as a teaching tool, but in no way does it seem like a workshop film.
A slow starter, Chalk is at least 30 minutes under way before the plot kicks in and we get a glimmer of how much is at stake for Watson (Edwin Johnson) and his two sons, T.C. (Kelvin Han Yee) and Jones (Johnnie Reese). Watson, the 60-year-old black proprietor of the Crabtree, a vast, rundown pool hall, is dying of lung cancer. Jones, the son he fathered with a Korean woman, is jealous of Watson’s love for his adopted son T.C., a Chinese American pool prodigy. He pushes T.C. into a big-money match with Dorian (Don Bajema), a ranking pro, knowing that T.C. lacks the confidence to win.
Chalk‘s finale is a 40-minute match that will have you holding your breath whether or not you know or care anything about pool. As adroit as Nilsson is in depicting the game and its rituals, it’s the underlying crisis of masculine identity that mesmerizes. Like Watson, a star who choked during a big match and turned to heroin to forget, T.C. is terrified of failure. But so is the older, crazed Dorian, who prepares for the battle by having his girlfriend stick a pool cue up his ass.
Bajema, a Nilsson regular, sufficiently resembles Tom Cruise to suggest what the fledgling pool shark of Scorsese’s The Color of Money would have looked like if he stayed in the game long enough for his dazzling smile to turn to a rictus grin. He and the smoldering, volatile Yee are the only professionals in the large cast, most of whom were drawn from the Tenderloin Action Group. Nilsson gets convincing performances from almost everyone, but what gives the film extra weight is the sense that these are not just actors trying to enhance their careers but real people seizing a chance for immortality.
Nilsson combines a performance-oriented, Cassavetes-like realism with a painterly, expressionist sense of color and composition. At first, Chalk seems like a slice of life, but by the end it has the heightened quality of a pool-hall legend. Collaborating with cameraman Mickey Freeman, Nilsson exploits the mobility, intimacy, and low-light capability of the video camera. There are long sequences where every shot is a surprise without being flashy or gratuitous. With an electronic palette made up of a dozen shades of brown punctuated with hits of acid greens and iridescent violet, Chalk is in every sense a dark film. Its beauty is the result of pushing the unique qualities of video to their limit rather than trying to approximate the look of shooting on celluloid. Nilsson’s long-standing commitment to video production would place him smack in the middle of Indiewood’s digital revolution, if his vision weren’t so bleakly existential and unsparing.
The family in Catfish in Black Bean Sauce is also multicultural, but that’s where the comparison with Chalk ends. Chi Muoi Lo wrote, directed, and also stars in this social satire about a Vietnamese brother and sister, Dwayne (played by the filmmaker) and Mai (Lauren Tom), who came to California as refugees and were adopted by an African American couple (Paul Winfield and Mary Alice). Twenty-five years later, Mai locates their birth mother and brings her to America, throwing the entire family into a crisis of identity. Particularly confused is Dwayne, who is African American-identified and about to marry a beautiful young black woman (Sanaa Lathan).
Catfish in Black Bean Sauce (the title refers to a Vietnamese dish that originated in China, cooked by Dwayne’s adoptive mom at the family reunion to unanimous dissatisfaction) is a progressive but not very funny comedy of manners. Lo is too limited a director to handle the most touchy aspect of social satire—that it derives humor from the very stereotypes it critiques. He also puts the film at a disadvantage by casting himself in the lead. Despite the autobiographical elements in the script, Lo’s performance is broad and impersonal, and his lack of chemistry with Lathan adds to the sense that the film is all concept and no flesh and blood.
The summer’s silliest cinematic experience has to be The Cell, ostensibly a slightly futuristic serial killer movie but, subtextually, a commercial for the Saatchi collection. Carrying to extremes the postmodern notion that art is never original, director Tarsem Singh not only uses The Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, and Strange Days as ur-texts but scavenges from 20 years of music videos (including his own for R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”) and 35 years of art references—which are amusing enough but absurd as a hook for a mass-market movie.
This hook is made physical in the form of metal rings screwed into the back of a serial killer (Vincent D’Onofrio) who hangs himself from them à la performance artist Ron Athey. Other prominent sources are Joseph Beuys, Joan Jonas, Lisa Yuskavage, Matthew Barney, the Chapman brothers, Damien Hirst—the sliced horse is hilarious even if you see the joke coming long in advance. Singh seems hell-bent on including every piece from the “Sensation” show. What with the Master Musicians of Jajouka on the soundtrack and Eiko Ishioka’s gorgeous, kabuki-like costumes, The Cell is a bit of a multiculti experience as well.
If you aren’t intent on keeping an art checklist, I don’t know how you’ll get through The Cell without falling asleep. Singh isn’t big on suspense or shock. The ludicrous plot devolves into a triangle formed by the killer, a psychotherapist (Jennifer Lopez) who enters his unconscious via some top-secret electro-chemical device, and an FBI agent (Vince Vaughn) whose mission is to locate the killer’s final victim before it’s too late.
In lieu of acting, Lopez, Vaughn, and D’Onofrio engage in some kind of pouting competition the rules of which only they are aware. (Lopez’s most memorable moment comes when Singh catches her casually examining the interior of her fridge, the curving line of her buttocks approximating the sinuous shape of the Sahara sand dunes where we first encounter her.) The scene where the gold-dusted D’Onofrio plaintively sings “Mairzy Doats” as he disembowels a prone, struggling Vaughn takes digitized wet dreams to a new level (warning: this is not a pull quote), but, overall, The Cell is not nearly the mindfuck it wants to be.