Private Eyes


Miscast, misguided, and often nonsensical, Minority Report is nevertheless the most entertaining, least pretentious genre movie Steven Spielberg has made in the decade since Jurassic Park. Spielberg shot this science-fiction thriller while editing A.I., and it has the feel of a second chance—at once giddier than the Kubrick adaptation in its filmmaking and more melancholy in its metaphysics.

The unexpectedly topical premise, taken from a 1956 story by sci-fi master Philip K. Dick, posits a future in which mutant “pre-cogs” dream of murders before they occur, thus allowing the police to arrest killers in advance of their crimes. “The guilty are arrested before the law is broken,” per the movie’s sell line. Spielberg himself has expressed support for the extra-legality of the current Bush war on terror. Adding to the early-21st-century feel, Minority Report opens by channeling David Fincher with a zappy, gore-filled “previsualization.” Chief inspector John Anderton (Tom Cruise) conducts the flow of images, hilariously accompanied by Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony,” rewinding and recombining the evidence as though fashioning a movie on some telepathic editing console.

The three pre-cogs floating unconscious in their high-security amniotic pool are not the only ones troubled by nightmares. The solitary Anderton is a secret dope fiend, haunted by the disappearance of his young son six years before. It is because of the boy’s abduction that the cop has become the poster boy for the Washington, D.C., pre-crime unit founded by the lordly, Ashcroft-like Lamar Burgess (Max Von Sydow). But is preemptive punishment a good thing? Inevitably, Anderton discovers that the pre-cogs have determined that he is destined to commit murder, killing someone he doesn’t yet know. Is it a setup? Do we care? Although even Arnold Schwarzenegger would have been more convincing than action-twit Cruise once he takes it on the lam with Agatha (Samantha Morton, sans eyebrows), the most oracular of the pre-cogs, the robotic rhythms of the Spielberg montage machine are not yet obsolete.

Set in a hazy, amorphous 2054, Minority Report has been shot by Janusz Kaminski as though all color has been leeched from the world, along with criminality. The lighting is pale and diffuse; the space sometimes turns alarmingly viscous. The monuments of Washington, D.C., remain reproachful witnesses. Going for the phantasmagorical, Spielberg keeps the camera in near constant motion, sneaking up on the action even as he shifts tone in every other scene. The familiar sense of Spielbergian wonder mutates into a moment of Lynchian menace that gives way to would-be Wellesian baroque and is itself trumped by gross-out comedy—most successfully in the oedipal bit of business that has the fugitive Anderton chasing his runaway eyeballs as they roll toward a sewer grate.

His trademark paranoia aside, Dick’s original story was mainly an exercise in the proliferation of bifurcating possibilities (hence the title) closer in some respects to imagining a Borges conundrum than an Orwell police state. Spielberg’s movie, however, is less concerned with forking paths of predestination—which, as scripted by Jon Cohen and Scott Frank, grow increasingly convoluted in their lack of logic—than in the process of exorcizing the past. Despite a splendidly played explanation of the term given by a dodgy genetic biologist (Lois Smith), the concept of the minority report that gives Dick’s story its twist is here something of a red herring—although the screenplay does introduce such other Dickian notions as compensatory drug use and pervasive advertising.

The latter aspect of the Dickian dystopia is particularly appealing to Spielberg, who imagines an all-too-credible world in which (as with TV ratings) consumers are defined by what they watch. Eyes, in Minority Report, are literally windows on the soul, and the soul is that which yearns for brand-name fulfillment. Every electronic billboard is a consumer surveillance mechanism programmed to recognize a potential customer and deliver a customized personal message. (This is most wickedly visualized as Anderton drags the shaking and quaking, madly prognosticating Agatha through a shopping mall with the cops in hot pursuit.)

Minority Report is a movie of haunting images and mindless thrills. Whatever its intent, it visualizes (as well as demonstrates) a future where the unconscious has been thoroughly colonized. All human desires are grist for capitalist gratification, just as any criminal thoughts are grounds for state punishment. Spielberg himself may want to trade legal freedoms for security from terror, but Minority Report‘s recurring images of thought police drifting down from the sky or crashing through the ceiling into someone’s life have a terrorizing resonance beyond the tortuous permutations of the plot. Similarly, the mechanical spiders that serve as police bloodhounds are spectacularly invasive—a key concept for the movie.

Predicated on lost children and broken families, Minority Report doesn’t entirely escape Spielbergian bathos. But this sentimentality is not the sole instance of the filmmaker’s personal investment. There’s a rueful edge to the tawdry image emporium—part sleazy disco, part psychedelic Radio Shack—where citizens seek solace and Anderton tries to “download” Agatha’s visions. And most fascinating is the bitter knowledge of its final mystery: If you can only create the right movie, you can get away with murder.

The history of modern art is the history of realized alternate universes. A successful art movement provokes collective delirium—a process suggested by two underground “minority reports,” Alfred Leslie’s abrasive feature-length video The Cedar Bar and Bill Weber and David Weissman’s fond, funny documentary The Cockettes.

An exuberantly pugnacious exercise in New York School historiography, The Cedar Bar—named for the well-known painters’ hangout—evokes its time and place with a barrage of clips pillaged from old newsreels and period Hollywood, as well as several recent fictional evocations of ’30s and ’40s New York. Leslie, a lapsed abstract painter whose best-known movie is the collaboratively made Pull My Daisy, envisions Manhattan as a frenzied, semiotic nightclub in which actors read his lost and reconstructed 1952 play, originally based on overheard barroom conversations. This cabaret aspect is maintained throughout with the emphasis on porn, vaudeville, and eccentric dancing—not to mention the atonal songs from Leslie’s play. Throughout, the filmmaker inscribes a wildly enthusiastic and stellar audience, seemingly culled from televised awards ceremonies. (Less engaging is his decision to reference the 20th century with a montage of Nazi newsreels and concentration-camp corpses.)

Leslie’s belated exercise in pop assemblage is an omnivorous, object-like, compulsively layered tape that’s as relentless in its way as his 1964 loop The Last Clean Shirt. The editing is exceedingly dense—many clips no longer than 15 seconds—and the visuals often overshadow the hysterical drama that centers on the spell cast by critic Clement Greenberg. While The Cedar Bar touches on Greenberg’s alcohol-fueled brawls and primitive sexual politics, it more deeply articulates the artist’s enraged ambivalence regarding the critic’s seemingly arbitrary power to bestow genius and confer significance.

More straightforward in its oral history, The Cockettes celebrates the commune of psychedelic drag queens whose anarchic, early-’70s midnight performances at San Francisco’s Palace Theatre represent the exotic confluence of the city’s hippie and gay subcultures. At the time, there were no terms for what the Cockettes were. Perhaps there still aren’t. The group included women, and as one member recalls, “Straight men would come to our show in dresses.” Audiences sometimes joined the show onstage. This compound was inherently unstable and the Cockettes fissured in 1971 over the issue of professionalism. The group’s shamanistic founder, Hibiscus, left and the more professional Sylvester became its star. Then Rex Reed discovered the Cockettes on a trip to San Francisco, and on a wave of publicity, the ensemble came to New York to crash and burn on Second Avenue in a debacle that was the negative theatrical event of the ’71-’72 season.

The surviving Cockettes provide their recollections amid a surprising amount of footage documenting their early stage shows. These performances attest to two of the period’s basic social facts: LSD and ATD. The former, ingested by many Cockettes on a daily basis, encouraged them to construct their own reality. The latter, California’s long-gone welfare program Aid to the Totally Disabled (described by the movie’s genial de facto narrator, John Waters, as “a grant from the government to continue your insane lifestyle in San Francisco”), allowed them to subsidize it.