To judge from the movies, the most common fantasy in our starstruck nation must be that of vaulting out of the mass audience and onto the spotlit stage. Or maybe it’s just that movies are made by stars (and wannabe stars) who naturally assume that your deepest desire is to be a star as well.
In Rock Star, former pop icon Mark Wahlberg plays a rock ‘n’ roll impersonator—the lead singer of a heavy metal cover band—who, being Mark Wahlberg, turns out to be better than the real thing. Imitation isn’t just the sincerest form of flattery; in this particular universe, it’s the lone instance of showbiz sincerity. In the more cerebral but no less personality-driven Haiku Tunnel, writer-director-performance artist Josh Kornbluth uses his own foibles to launch himself as leading man “Josh Kornbluth.” Success in this psychodrama is similarly predicated on the sincerity of one’s desire.
With the invocation “Those days were amazing,” Rock Star opens in mid-’80s Pittsburgh—Flashdance country—with Wahlberg and his less talented cohorts practicing in a loft somewhere behind the screen of the neighborhood porn theater. A fanatical follower of the Judas Priest-like band Steel Dragon, Wahlberg attends their local performance as a humble devout, crouching under the arena stage and screaming joyously along in perfect mimicry of their lead singer.
Scarcely a heavy metal monster, the Wahlberg character is meant to be a working-class sweetie whose salt of the earth parents are surprisingly tolerant and whose manager is his stellar girlfriend (Jennifer Aniston), with whom he sings in a church choir. Supremely motherly, Aniston’s main job in the movie is flashing Wahlberg a wry, warm look. In her big scene, she pierces his nipple for him after he learns that his idol has had the same operation. Literal-minded as this fan is, his band eventually kicks him out for being too serious about their fidelity to Steel Dragon.
Wahlberg can be a stupefyingly inert screen presence, but he does know something about how to hold a stage. As in Boogie Nights and, to a lesser degree, Three Kings, Wahlberg successfully projects a contradictory mixture of slack-jawed innocence and hard-nosed ambition. With his floppy Bon Jovi locks and beseeching canine eyes, he’s enormously appealing. Plant a black olive on his snout and he’d be as cute as a humanoid dog in a Disney comic book. (Perhaps Tim Burton should have tried something similar to enliven the world of tedium that was Planet of the Apes.)
As in the movie 42nd Street, and a thousand other backstage fantasies, the hero is plucked from obscurity to sub for the ailing headliner. His debut is a junkyard, Sturm und Drang Ziegfeld Follies in which he trips during his onstage entrance and tumbles from the heights of the prop staircase into the depths of the mosh pit, then recovers—finishing the show bloody but unbowed. (Appropriately hyper-theatrical, this particular 42nd Street variation combines the star who breaks her leg with the chorine who triumphantly takes her place.)
A superstar after one performance, Wahlberg develops a suitably inspirational riff—telling his fans that, like him, they should follow their dream. Of course, Rock Star is also a cautionary tale: Don’t wish for something—you might get it. Once the young man is initiated into the ongoing orgy of the beautiful, depraved, and sexually ambiguous, his faithful girlfriend has to split. She wants “a life” while his job is “to live the fantasy other people only dream about.” Or so explains Steel Dragon’s manager (Timothy Spall, playing his role as though he were the troll beneath the bridge waiting to dine on a Billygoat Gruff).
Raking over the same clichés as Almost Famous, Rock Star is far less reverential—it isn’t burdened by generational nostalgia and doesn’t take itself too seriously. (What’s more, although not to every taste, the “live” musical performances are far more convincingly faked.) Stephen Herek, who had his own show business break with Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, keeps the proceedings light, without being sloppy or haphazard in his period reconstructions. There are a number of good sight gags and even some pointed jokes—Wahlberg’s revered role model in the smoke-and-mirror business is not what he seems on stage.
Rock Star is hardly social satire—it does rather less with MTV than it might have—but it has a comical sense of history and seems perfectly aware that it is recounting a myth. The star ultimately recognizes his own wannabes, mutates into his dialectical opposite, and—if you wait for the closing credits—acknowledges himself as Marky Mark.
Another ambitious, if not so young, man searches for his place on the great chain of being in Haiku Tunnel, the latest in a series of low-budget workplace comedies that includes American Job, Office Killer, Clockwatchers, Bartleby, and the upcoming waydowntown. Haiku Tunnel—which Josh Kornbluth wrote and directed in collaboration with his brother Jacob—originated as a performance monologue, and it shows. The tip-off is not so much “Josh” delivering his well-honed account of Xerox jams, computer problems, and Satanic lawyers in direct, stand-up address, as it is the good-natured solipsism with which he orchestrates his misadventures as a legal secretary. Ironically self-regarding, Haiku Tunnel is a movie that revels in the perfume of its own body odor.
A round-faced, pop-eyed, stringy-haired Buddha type, Kornbluth casts himself as a professional office temp, an aspiring novelist and dithering slacker whose greatest joy is sacking out. (It’s a timely conceit, although the onstage Haiku Tunnel was first performed a decade ago.) Not consistently funny as a raconteur (his delivery lacks modulation), he’s almost always lovable as a character. Indeed, his greatest talent may be that of inspiring sympathy. (One running joke has “Josh” using the fearsome chief secretary as his surrogate shrink by filling her voice mail with his lengthy free associations.) Watching “Josh” perform, it’s difficult not to root for him—particularly as his mess becomes increasingly hopeless.
Kornbluth allows room for some enthusiastic secondary performances—particularly his blandly high-powered boss (Warren Keith, seemingly imitating the first George Bush)—but the movie is basically a one-man show. This broad, sometimes silly, evocation of office politics may lack a Gogolian sense of hierarchy or a Kafkaesque edge of terror, but it’s evident why it went over so well at Sundance. Haiku Tunnel is an indie inspirational. It’s unpretentiously low-tech and humorously offbeat. And against all odds, the filmmaker emerges as a star.
Having completed its run at the Whitney and begun its replay at Anthology, the “Unseen Cinema” series touches down for a weekend at the American Museum of the Moving Image. The theme is the intersection of Hollywood and the early American avant-garde—bracketing, for example, dance director Busby Berkeley with independent abstractionists like Oskar Fischinger and Mary Ellen Bute.
The rarest item screening may be Maurice Tourneur’s The Bluebird, a 1918 Famous Players-Lasky production adapted from Maurice Maeterlinck’s popular stage play. Made at least a year before The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, this allegorical account of two children’s search for the Bluebird of Happiness has a number of expressionist touches, including exaggerated shadows, optical distortions, blatantly two-dimensional backdrops, and animated silhouettes. Another anticipation of Caligari is no less striking: As numerous film avant-gardists would, Tourneur goes forward by going back. The Bluebird is deliberately anachronistic in quoting the primitive “trick films” (by Georges Méliès and others) that had passed from fashion a dozen years before.
A relatively lavish production for its time, The Bluebird eschews the rapid-fire editing characteristic of post-D.W. Griffith American movies in favor of the cluttered tableaux of 1905. It might be subtitled “A Pageant of Living Pictures,” particularly as much of the Wizard of Oz-like plot has to do with the coming to life of various household objects. In his major concession to naturalism, Tourneur allows his extremely relaxed child performers to, in effect, groove on the hallucinated doings around them. At the end of the movie, one kid stares straight into the camera. A title then follows: “Please, all of you, look for our Bluebird with all your hearts. Be sure to look first in your own homes, where he is most apt to be found.” It’s a thought that might have been articulated at the end of Rock Star or Haiku Tunnel.