It was Orson Welles, Andrew Sarris once noted, who “infected the American cinema with the virus of artistic ambition.” It was also Welles whose productions of Macbeth and Julius Caesar in the late 1930s—respectively transposed to Henri-Christophe’s Haiti and Mussolini’s Italy—anticipated the current cycle of Shakespeare updates, a mode given its youth-market burnish by Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.
Actor Billy Morrissette’s indie Scotland, PA, which plays out the Macbeth scenario in Duncan’s, a rural Pennsylvania greasy spoon circa 1973, is scarcely the worst of these—that’s a distinction earned by Kenneth Branagh’s unbearably arch and fiendishly maladroit Much Ado About Nothing. Amiably broad if not happily loutish, Morrissette’s first feature does little to elaborate the conceit of setting this blood-soaked tragedy of murderous ambition in the era of Richard Nixon—that is, beyond proposing it as a tale told about an idiot.
Assistant manager Joe “Mac” McBeth (James LeGros) advances his career at Duncan’s when he valiantly vaults the counter to break up a teenage food fight. Inspired by the three weird hippies who haunt the local funfair, egged on by his conniving wife, Pat (Maura Tierney), and using information provided by his dim-witted buddy Anthony “Banko” Banconi (Kevin Corrigan), Mac replaces the manager of Duncan’s and then sets about eliminating Norm Duncan (James Rebhorn) himself, putting the blame on the owner’s two rebellious sons. (One is a rocker, the other gay.)
The movie is enthusiastically acted—not least by Tierney, who for several seasons has enlivened E.R. as the sultry, albeit depressed, nurse Abby. Tierney and LeGros, a onetime indie axiom and recent Ally McBeal regular here scowling under a thick thatch of hair, make for a hot trailer-trash couple. Nor is their ambition unconvincing. There’s a TV-actor subtext to Pat’s explanation of why they might need to dispose of their patron Duncan: “We’re not bad people, Mac, we’re just underachievers who have to make up for lost time.” (One can even appreciate her wildly hopeful declaration, “I deserve a fucking Oscar for this performance.”)
Scotland, PA is a movie of overbright cinematography and hit-or-miss gimmicks. The wittiest joke is the queen-sized waterbed given pride of place in the flashy tract house from which the newly ascendant couple rule their ill-gotten french-fry kingdom—with its blood-red “McBeth” arches—after they’ve dispatched Duncan in a grisly kitchen accident; the most dubious effect is Christopher Walken’s turn as Lieutenant Ernie McDuff, the outside police detective sent to investigate Duncan’s demise. The irrepressible Walken smiles benignly down on his colleagues, secure in the knowledge that his antics have capsized sturdier vessels than this. Playing a supposed health-food nut, he enters the movie chewing and doesn’t stop until he’s devoured every scene down to the props.
A mega-blockbuster that outgrossed Titanic in its home market, Shiri was also the first South Korean movie to exploit its audience’s fear of North Korea as the basis for a popular thriller. As directed by Kang Je-Gyu, the movie is high-powered and gory—opening with a sleek, if confusing, initiation scene in which a cadre of crazed commies knife their bound prisoners before engaging in a mass kick-fight. There’s scarcely a dull moment thereafter, at least so long as Kang sticks to mayhem. (The script was reportedly rewritten a dozen times—either 11 times too many or else too few.)
By comparison, the crude 38th-parallel political thriller Joint Security Area is a virtual Frederick Wiseman documentary. Hee (Kim Yun-Jin), the toughest as well as the most glamorous of North Korean commandos, has gone underground in the south—leading a sedate double existence in Seoul even as she orchestrates the attacks of assorted grim-faced terrorist robots with Dr. Mabuse aplomb. There’s a sense that Hee wants out of the terror game, but her minions won’t let her retire. They seize a new miracle explosive to blow up the first North-South soccer match, an event to be attended by the leaders of both countries. By now, the terrorists appear to be North Korean ultras who, if I understand their aims correctly, want to provoke a war to end the famine.
Kang orchestrates a few John Woo-style shootouts in relatively tight spaces (a restaurant kitchen, a pet store well stocked with fish tanks), coming across as an impersonal action director. This empty professionalism goes beyond style. Prospective viewers should be prepared to enjoy a spectacular scene in which a Seoul skyscraper is blown up and flaming bodies rain down on the street.
One of the key texts of the new Argentine cinema, Martín Rejtman’s 1999 Silvia Prieto gets a weeklong run at Anthology Film Archives (February 7 through 13), along with Rejtman’s earlier Rapado (a film credited with helping to jump-start the current revival). Silvia Prieto, which has had several New York screenings over the past few years, is set in a milieu of Buenos Aires slackers; the unsmiling title character exudes a curious mixture of depression and spontaneity, living a life at once reductively organized and totally haphazard.
As deadpan as its anti-heroine, Silvia Prieto is a sort of surreal city symphony founded on the recurrence of absurd coincidences in cheap restaurants and cramped apartments. There’s an aimless circulation of objects as well as identities. Silvia loses hers to a souvenir china doll. (As rival “Silvia Prietos” proliferate, other characters lose their names altogether.) Rejtman’s humor is exceedingly dry; his scenes are often based on the absence of inflection and trifling non sequiturs. Though the film predates the current crisis in Argentina, it suggests that to live in Buenos Aires is necessarily to have a highly developed sense of the absurd.
The Rotterdam Film Festival, where I was a guest last week, is the international showcase most committed to new, far-flung, and alternative modes of cinema. A case in point is *Corpus Callosum, Michael Snow’s new, feature-length perceptual vaudeville, which had its world premiere projected on the big screen of a state-of-the-art commercial theater.
Although shot on video and largely computer-produced, *Corpus Callosum is almost a self-curated retrospective of Snow’s career, but with a twist. Everything in this continually self-referential piece, some of which was shown in late 2000 as The Living Room, is stretched, squeezed, and flipped—the bodies of Snow’s large cast not the least. (At one point, one guy ties another in a knot.) Space is a similarly malleable object. Is the camera panning, or is the image being subjected to some sort of digital taffy-pull?
*Corpus Callosum, which is titled for the “central region” of brain tissue that acts as a conduit between the two hemispheres, can be appreciated as both a naturalistic animation and an abstract Frank Tashlin comedy. It’s the first movie of the new millennium to warrant both a special issue of October and a run at the Sunshine Theater—soon I hope.