Up the Academy


Say what you will, James Toback has held faith with his convictions. For more than a quarter- century (if you count his script for 1974’s faux-Dostoyevskian doze The Gambler), Toback has been hawking his manias with a pile-driving insistence: pussy, philosophy, petty gangsterism, gambling, college basketball, classical music, casual bisexuality, unchecked blabbering, drugs, and adolescent hard living. Obsessives can be seductive, and Toback is interesting for the same reasons his films are often unendurable: He’s not an artist so much as a giant pop-cult testicle pumping absurd energy in a rampaging, self-justifying gout.

Harvard Man is characteristic of Toback in that there’s no telling whether he doesn’t care to wrestle his totems into any kind of meaningful order or if he simply doesn’t know how. We begin with Alan (the seemingly eighth-grade Adrian Grenier), a Harvard philosophy student and basketball star (!), enjoying a pre-game fuck with spoiled Mafia spawn Sarah Michelle Gellar accessorized by blaring Bach, bass-heavy rock, a synchronized alarm clock, a cheroot-sized spliff, and disaster TV. Soon an offscreen tornado takes out his Kansas home, prompting the young Toback-proxy to ask Gellar’s greasy dad (Gianni Russo) for 100 Gs, for which Alan must throw the upcoming Dartmouth game. Joey Lauren Adams shows up as a philosophy prof into three-ways, Rebecca Gayheart plays an FBI agent out of a Josie & the Pussycats sequel, and eventually Alan drops three hits of pharmo-acid that send him running pointlessly across campus and the movie into a yawn-igniting free fall.

Of course, Toback went to Harvard; it would never occur to him to make a movie about something other than himself (or his cock-tugging daydreams). Having floundered without a distributor for more than a year, Harvard Man is at least a testament to Toback’s gift for salesmanship. Wooing these actors (including Eric Stoltz) to sign on to this script despite their agents’ qualms must’ve been a killer close.

You could call Toback’s films pretentious if he weren’t so enthusiastic about his own degradation, but Robert Altman’s Three Women—a long-unavailable ’70s brontosaur enjoying a 25th anniversary revival—is unquestionably rococo. Altman at his peak was the Balzac of American culture-scapes (think the six-year run of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Thieves Like Us, California Split, The Long Goodbye, Nashville, and Buffalo Bill and the Indians), capturing more absurd tumult, social topography, native ritual, and pathetic self-deceit per minute than any filmmaker of the decade. Altman occasionally dawdled in metaphysical angst, and Three Women was at worst viewed as a vaporous, Jungian detour. Today, the movie doesn’t portend Altman’s subsequent tailspin into irrelevance as much as it suggests a restlessness with the comic realism he had mastered.

A gauzy, perfectly executed vacation in Doppelgänger-burg, Three Women is as profound as you’d like it to be. The first half is supremely Altmanic: In an underpopulated California resort town, Pinky, an inexperienced Texas girl (Sissy Spacek), starts work at a rest-home spa, eventually leeching onto Millie (Shelley Duvall), a semi-glamorous nurse prone to voguing cigarette postures and silly fashion-magazine ideas. The textures are picture-perfect: Duvall is an uncanny creature, the locations are shot so indelibly the dust and steam get up your nose, the social collisions are fraught with awkward electricity. It’s Three Women‘s initial triumph that although Pinky reveres Millie—and the structure invites us to consider them opposites—Millie is in fact a monstrous misfit, oblivious to her own pariah-hood and living in a cheesy media ether. But the ominous post-Bergman soundtrack (by Gerald Busby) and Boschian artwork tell us that the milieu will soon become a mere context for a looming psychodramatic switcheroo, and although Three Women doesn’t quite become schematic, its climactic character-morphing and strong-arm mysteriousness still seem glib. By 1977, Altman had earned this digression, but where’s the rerelease of Thieves Like Us?

Persona-mutating scenarios require a steady touch, and Takashi Miike, whose Visitor Q (Media Blasters; opens June 28 at Cinema Village) visits modern cinema’s most ridiculously monstrous family unit, has the white-knuckle grip of a speedballer. Conscientiously scandalous, this shabby home-video affront pushes our faces into compulsive incest, lactation fetishes (manga artist Shungiku Uchida soaks the walls in breast milk and suckles half the cast), videotaped anal rape, necrophilia, corpse disposal, and so on. If Herschell Gordon Lewis had adapted Eugene O’Neill, the result still wouldn’t out-thicken the muck of Miike’s anti-achievement.