Waking Life


In Christopher Münch’s The Sleepy Time Gal, a middle-aged woman’s cancer diagnosis spurs attempts at resolution and reconciliation. But where most films about terminal illness hang a millstone of lesson-learning on the dying and their loved ones, Münch’s rarefied elegy depicts a more matter-of-fact and expansive preparation for death. The film’s working title, Backward Looks, Far Corners, perfectly summarizes its methodology and subject. From the dull, surreal ache of mortal awareness emerges a radiant character portrait, one undaunted by the bulky proportions of biography or by the contrary particulars of a willful, eccentric woman’s cruelly truncated life—abundant in both bliss and agony, marked equally by snatched opportunities and lingering regrets.

Münch’s luminous protagonist, Frances (Jacqueline Bisset), comes into focus via diffuse details: her youth as a late-night radio DJ (whose on-air persona provides the title), her devotion to social causes (undercompensated work that now leaves her struggling to pay her bills, though the film—or at least Frances—asserts the value of intellectual stimulation over economic independence), her eclectic interests (the Revolutionary War, Christian Science), the many hearts she broke along the way. Sufficiently unsentimental to understand that some loose ends are beyond recall, Frances is also hard enough on herself to view proximity to death as an index of failure. In the midst of a hot-air balloon ride, she wonders, “What’s life but a shitload of missed chances?” The rhetorical question is directed at former lover Bob (Seymour Cassell), the father of the baby girl she gave up for adoption years ago, and Münch doesn’t hesitate to assign him an alternate definition: “Hope realized. People loving people. A recognition of shared destiny. A willingness to move with things.”

On the page, lines like these may creak with a declamatory stiffness, but in context, they’re hardly ever incongruous. Münch’s characters are given to a certain rapt, unwieldy thoughtfulness, and accordingly, his films cultivate a mood of almost trancelike introspection. When Frances’s daughter, Rebecca, grown into a brittle, somewhat pinched lawyer (played with furrowed brow by Martha Plimpton), travels to Florida to administer a radio station takeover, she befriends the smooth-talking owner (Frankie Faison), who, unbeknownst to her, was once romantically involved with her birth mother. The two share an amusement-park ride that echoes Frances and Bob’s private airborne reverie. She confides, “I can’t help but think there are so many things I haven’t done.” (He calls her an overachiever with a premature midlife crisis, and sets about seducing her.) Later, an exasperated Frances tells her son Morgan (Nick Stahl), a budding photographer, “The life you lived isn’t always the life you hoped for.” As in Münch’s first two films, the speculative Lennon-Epstein chamber piece, The Hours and Times, and the railroad preservation allegory, Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day, the most powerful undercurrents are impossible expectations and thwarted desires.

Incandescently photographed by Rob Sweeney (it’s Münch’s first feature to be shot in color), The Sleepy Time Gal proceeds in erratic temporal leaps (like Münch’s other films, it’s a period piece, spanning the early to mid 1980s) and darts freely about in space, moving from New York to San Francisco, Pennsylvania Dutch country to Daytona Beach. Münch crosscuts between Frances and Rebecca, fashioning a faraway-so-close pas de deux, though in so emphatically enforcing the umbilical connection, he manufactures a few too many mirrored, quasi-mystical resonances.

In this avowedly autobiographical story, the most moving element may be the most starkly personal—the relationship between Frances and Morgan, in which genuine affection is complicated by mutual provocation and a rueful awareness of the other’s shortcomings. Basically, she nags him, while he calmly ribs her. Several minor characters, in just a few brief scenes, suggest entire movies of their own, notably Peggy Gormley as Bob’s wife. Stahl is excellent as the director’s surrogate, aloof yet inquisitive, but the film belongs to Bisset—it’s thanks in no small part to her candid and complex performance that for all its gossamer, death-haunted poetics, The Sleepy Time Gal in the end conveys the irreducible weight of a singular life.

After its weeklong run at the Pioneer, The Sleepy Time Gal screens the second weekend of June as part of BAMcinématek’s annual survey of films without distributors, drawn from the results of Take Three, the most recent Voice critics’ poll. This year, the BAM rescue effort opens with John Gianvito’s nearly three-hour The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein, a no-budget epic that, along with Münch’s labor of love, might be seen as the valiant, battered embodiment of true independent American film—produced not least through sheer force of determination (see feature).

As tensions simmer and explode in the Persian Gulf in 1990-91, Mad Songs trains its sights on another desert a world away. Under vast New Mexico skies, a multi-part narrative unfolds, recounting the stories of three people whose lives are unmistakably transformed by Operation Desert Storm. A Mexican American single mother (Thia Gonzalez) whose married name is Hussein finds herself and her half-Egyptian children the target of anti-Arab hate crimes. An alienated teen (Dustin Scott), galvanized by the peace movement and at loggerheads with his well-off parents, ends up on the streets of Santa Fe. A young marine (real-life veteran Robert Perrea) returns from his tour of duty and soon learns that he has no job, a mysterious rash, and a head full of ghosts.

Mad Songs is hardly the first film to confront the specter of the Gulf War. Hollywood weighed in with the would-be upstanding Courage Under Fire and the acerbic but muddleheaded Three Kings, while documentaries have ranged from journalist John Pilger’s interrogation of UN sanctions, Paying the Price, to Werner Herzog’s aerial tour of hell on earth, Lessons of Darkness. But none of these match the sustained fury, disgust, and sorrow of Gianvito’s jeremiad, which has taken on a renewed unsettling resonance in recent months.

The solemn indignation of the enterprise, as handled by a nonprofessional cast, sometimes registers awkwardly. But for every scene that plays like a dramatic reading of a Nation editorial (the magazine actually gets waved about at one point), Gianvito summons a couple of persuasive formal or rhetorical flourishes. He splices in American TV coverage, scenes from victory parades, and concert footage of Iraqi oud player Naseer Shemma (performing a piece that he composed in response to the bombing of the Al-Amiriyya shelter in 1991). Ulli Bonnekamp’s 16mm cinematography beautifully captures the craggy, sun-baked Southwestern vistas. Mad Songs saves its most memorable image for its hard-earned climax, which molds the ambiguous, hallucinatory spectacle of a combusting effigy into a viewer-implicating demonstration of crowd psychology and a harrowing cri de coeur.

Christopher Nolan made his first movie, Following, guerrilla style, much like The Hours and Times and Mad Songs. He followed it with last year’s indie smash, Memento, and now smoothly vaults into the studio leagues with Insomnia, a remake of a little-seen 1997 Norwegian thriller. Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s original remains a nifty genre experiment—a film blanc, so to speak, that exposes a noirish emulsion of guilt and suspicion to the taunting midnight sun, as a Swedish detective (Stellan Skarsgard) consigned to arctic Norway during the perpetual daylight of summer hunts down a killer while suffering the torture of sleep deprivation.

The Hollywood version (which is half an hour longer) transports the action to Alaska, and works up a respectable level of bleary-eyed paranoia. But Nolan, withholding master of disorientation in his previous non-linear films, allows far too easy access into the psychic tumult of Al Pacino’s cop and Robin Williams’s prime suspect. Where Skarsgard’s character retained a chilling degree of opacity, Pacino’s is reduced to hard-boiled aphorisms and an internal-affairs backstory. And while Skjoldbjaerg’s economical filmmaking craftily paralleled his protagonist’s mounting unease, Nolan wastes no time in whipping out the anxious inserts and close-ups; similarly, Pacino looks pissed and gaunt before he even gets off the plane. Hillary Seitz’s script, playing by the rules, adds cute frills (Pacino’s character is named Dormer and the town is called Nightmute), tames the psychosexual currents of the Scandinavian template (though faint echoes of Laura Palmer remain—the killer even tampers with the dead girl’s fingernails), and contrives a redemptive conclusion.

The harsh, otherworldly Alaskan topography is perhaps the movie’s greatest asset—a suggestive analogue to Dormer’s splintering inner life. But while the icy dexterity of the technique places Insomnia ahead of virtually all the studio competition (a chase sequence over and under floating logs is superb), it must count as a disappointment when the most promising mindfuck director of the last few years goes on to make a movie that’s basically a triumph of location scouting.