Hell and High Water


Tsai Ming-liang, subject of a recent retro at the Walter Reade, is the most extreme stylist in the new Taiwanese cinema, and The River, which has taken four years to get to New York, is his most extreme—and in some ways most audacious—movie.

First and foremost, Tsai is a poet of urban anomie. Life is lonely and loveless for the citizens of his anonymous, modern Taipei; Eleanor Rigby would be a fun-loving party girl in the context of The River. Indeed, there hasn’t been so angst-ridden an allegory of human isolation since Ingmar Bergman unleashed The Silence—although Tsai, it should be stressed, is not devoid of humor. Most of his jokes are visual. The River is a film where there’s far more water passed than words.

The opening image, in which former classmates meet going in opposite directions on empty escalators, is typical of Tsai’s deadpan slapstick. The River is very nearly a series of comic blackout sketches, but it’s not exactly a comedy. Thanks to this chance encounter, Hsiao-kang (the boyishly blank Tsai axiom, Lee Kang-sheng) winds up on location watching a movie being shot by Hong Kong director Ann Hui on the banks of Taipei’s polluted Tanshui River. Unsatisfied with the dummy meant to represent a floating human corpse, persistent Hui drafts Hsiao-kang to play the role.

Her movie casts a malign spell on Tsai’s. Having absorbed a mysterious toxin as a result of his immersion in acting (or, perhaps, of playing dead), Hsiao-kang consequently develops an undiagnosable neck condition. The pain is so severe that it causes him to topple off his motor scooter and so persistent that it lasts for the remainder of the film. Increasingly contorted, Hsiao-kang undergoes a prolonged series of physical exams and receives all manner of useless treatment, from magical to medical.

What exactly is being somatized here? Hsiao-kang’s malady, it would seem, is the manifestation of his love-starved and dysfunctional family. Hsiao-kang’s depressed father looks for action in the city’s gay bathhouses; his more animated mother is having an affair with a guy who wholesales erotic videos—apparently because it allows her to watch the stuff. Even bleaker than the scene of Dad cruising a young hustler outside McDonald’s is the one in which Mom is aroused by the sound of porn from an unseen TV monitor and fails utterly to elicit a response from her sleeping lover.

Needless to say, the parents never speak to each other and only occasionally acknowledge their elaborately suffering son. (It takes a good chunk of the movie to even figure out that they are a family.) In one scene Hsiao-kang sits nursing his agony in a hospital corridor as his mother bustles heedlessly past. Even the wincing contortions of Lee’s performance have an allegorical undercurrent. They suggest nothing so much as a fish out of water, gasping for air. The pain in Hsiao-kang’s neck is hardly The River‘s only mysterious, water-borne affliction. There’s a massive leak in the ceiling of the family apartment. Rather than investigate the source, stoical Dad has rigged up a jerry-built drainage system.

Easily derided as pretentious, although regarded by some as Tsai’s masterpiece, The River oscillates in tone between the lugubriously wistful and the painfully soporific before finally settling itself down as something very close to self-parody. The movie is too abstract to do more than telegraph its misery. Tsai’s vision of alienated city dwellers slowly sinks under the weight of inert characterization and schematic metaphor. The emotional climax, however luridly shocking, is also faintly ridiculous—a plot twist that Tsai might have lifted from Terry Southern’s once famous porn spoof Candy.

Like Tsai’s more compact and successfully realized works (Vive l’Amour and The Hole), The River is detached yet obsessive—a movie of long, uninflected, activity-driven takes. Here, however, the absurdity floods the banks of the filmmaker’s intentions. The audience with which I first saw The River at the 1997 Berlin film festival ironically applauded the real-time spectacle of the hero urinating. I’d like to think they appreciated the idea that one of Tsai’s poor dank creatures was finally getting some relief.

America’s Sweethearts may be a lackluster screwball comedy and dubious Julia Roberts vehicle, but insider movie that it is, it’s premised on a certain form of Hollywood logic. In a world where every aspect of life is lived or invented in the glare of total media attention (and where, as the script makes clear, Larry King is a virtual godlet), the promotion of a movie is far more important than the movie itself.

Beaming benignly through the sort of role Lee Tracy would have sunk his fangs into back in the ’30s, Billy Crystal plays the craftiest of studio flacks. This veteran publicist has his hands full managing the eponymous sweethearts, estranged couple Catherine Zeta-Jones and John Cusack, through their latest movie’s junket, in part because the director (Christopher Walken), a lank-haired cross between the Unabomber and Stanley Kubrick, is holding the print hostage. Crystal has to vamp until the film arrives, tossing morsels to the piranha press who have been flown into the Nevada desert for the preview. In a sense, the publicist makes his own movie by fabricating a series of gossip-rich pseudo-events around the lovesick Cusack, the impossibly spoiled Zeta-Jones, and her character’s new lover (Hank Azaria), a lisping Spanish actor who keeps referring to the “hunket.”

Crystal, who coproduced and cowrote America’s Sweethearts, is true to his conceit in demonstrating more promotional than writerly wisdom. His script forces Cusack to play a pointless rooftop rescue scene and gives Crystal himself a sequence in which he is fellated by a rottweiler. In somewhat the same spirit of masochistic self-indulgence, director—and two-time former production chief—Joe Roth gets Stanley Tucci to give a terrible one-note performance as a terrible studio boss. Maybe America’s Sweethearts is Roth’s complaint. Basically, it’s about pampering the ungrateful talent. (It’s not the PR diva but the aggrieved star who crashes an SUV into a restaurant.)

The real sweetheart, of course, is Julia Roberts, who plays Zeta-Jones’s long-suffering personal assistant and sister. (Identifying the elder sib would make an interesting audience Rorschach test.) Can our Julia out-adorable the boringly beauteous Zeta-Jones? Guess which part she turned down? If you don’t know the answer to that one, you haven’t been doing your publicity homework.

America’s Sweethearts is one more softcore Julia Roberts Cinderella story. Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1955 Bob Le Flambeur, revived for two weeks in a new, re-subtitled 35mm print, is a more hard-boiled fable: “As told in Montmartre, here is the curious tale of. . . Bob Le Flambeur,” the narrator promises, by way of introducing a silver-haired, trench-coat Galahad who lives in an artist’s atelier, tools around Montmartre in a two-toned Plymouth, and gambles each night until dawn.

Something like the cinematic Birth of the Cool, Melville’s drollest, most likable gangster movie is set in the ’50s, but it deliberately evokes Paris’s pre-World War II underworld. There’s a nostalgia to Melville’s love of smoky dives and Pigalle at dawn. His tough-guy hero, heading home to sleep at 7 a.m., catches a glimpse of his weary reflection in a storefront mirror and mutters, “a real hood’s face.” (Actually, Bob is played by Roger Duchesne, a distinguished-looking actor with a real-life shady past.) A former bank robber, now the most formidable high roller in Paris, Bob hates pimps but has a soft spot for young lowlife, mainly his protégé (Daniel Cauchy) and an outrageous piece of jailbait (played by then 15-year-old Isabelle Corey).

A model for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight, among other movies, Bob Le Flambeur was actually Melville’s answer to the elaborately choreographed heists of The Asphalt Jungle as well as Rififi, which he had once hoped to direct. (August Le Breton, who wrote Rififi, was recruited to work on Bob‘s script.) Here, too, the caper is presented as a commando mission. Bob Le Flambeur is brilliantly scripted to build up to the grand casino heist—even the insistent checkerboard patterns that make the movie so emphatically black-and-white culminate with the gaming tables of Deauville.

Bob Le Flambeur takes itself seriously, but as attitude thrillers go, it’s exceedingly light on its feet. The movie is a superb riff with a boffo finale, a terrific, cynical punch line, and a crazy closing image of Bob’s Plymouth on an empty beach.