Artificially Preserved


The comic books of my childhood used to employ the written sound effect “Glorch!” to signify a violent lump in the throat. There’s a kindred form of gulping sentimentality to the Robin Williams vehicles of the late ’90s, but this century the star appears to have gone into career rehab—if not checked in for a complete Clockwork Orange makeover. Now a recovering glorchmeister, Williams tops his recent villainous turns in the comedy Death to Smoochy and thriller Insomnia as Sy Parrish, the kindly psychotic stalker of Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo.

A gnomish codger with close-cropped orange hair, Sy is the lonely photo guy in a Wal-Mart-type emporium. (Fox Searchlight, which released the similarly set The Good Girl two weeks ago, is evidently taking the lead in dramatizing the secret lives of America’s retail proletariat.) Short and stocky, with an uncannily round head rendered all the more puppet-like by his tight-lipped smile, Sy is tentative yet stubborn. There’s nothing funny about a clown in the moonlight, Lon Chaney used to say. In a sense, Sy is sentimentality deranged. His mania is also a given. The photo processor is introduced as a criminal, being booked in a menacingly bright and antiseptic police station, where a cop informs him that his photographs are being used as evidence against him.

Pondering a portrait of his late grandmother, Proust described photography as a form of dismal reification—a pale reflection of life—and so it is here. One Hour Photo is nothing if not a concept film whose sci-fi totalitarian tone is immediately established. These efficient suburban law officers not only work out of a bleak Danish-modern station but represent a special “threat management unit.” At least Sy’s passion is genuine. His crimes arise out of his love for pretty suburban matron Nina Yorkin (Connie Nielsen). Or rather, he’s in love with Nina’s life—her successful husband (Michael Vartan), cute kid (Dylan Smith), devoted pet, fun-filled vacations, and palatial suburban spread—as recorded in the family snapshots that he processes with near religious devotion.

Taking his solitary meals in family restaurants and living his life surrounded by copies of other people’s snapshots, Sy is a hapless seeker in a world of simulation, not unlike the androids in Blade Runner whose sense of their imaginary “human” past is predicated on the fake family photos they treasure. (Indeed, Sy rummages through flea markets to construct a record of his own history.) At the same time, the photo guy is presented as an industrial anachronism. Romanek lavishes close-ups on the printing process—Sy is a proud craftsman personifying the technology that links photographs to the preservation of memory and, later in the movie, to the proof of wrongdoing.

As the fastidious Sy takes it upon himself to correct a few flaws in his vision of idealized Yorkindom, so One Hour Photo has a deliberately alienated mise-en-scène, predicated on the fluorescent symmetry of Sy’s workplace and the too perfectly lit exteriors of a happy Kodak ad. Romanek, a successful maker of music videos and television spots, knowingly directs his first feature as though it were a generic commercial. The Muzak blends into the actual score. The camera moves have an escalator glide.

Most commercial movies have a fear of subjectivity—witness the contortions that Signs must go through to establish itself as an “objective” supernatural doomsday thriller rather than an account of an individual crisis of faith. One Hour Photo, however, is essentially the story of Sy’s breakdown as it is played out among the phantoms of the Yorkin zone. The movie’s funniest, most tellingly narcissistic moment has Sy violate the sacred temple to discover his own photo affixed to the Yorkin family fridge.

Structurally, One Hour Photo is modeled on Taxi Driver, but as carefully repressed as Williams is, the full flowering of Sy’s obsession lacks the scary abandon that Robert De Niro brought to Travis Bickle. Since his pathology is insufficiently motivated, Sy ultimately feels more like a presence than a character. (Romanek shows him watching The Day the Earth Stood Still on TV and presumably identifying with the aliens.) The creepiness might have been better served were Sy less the movie’s centerpiece than an effect who is continually glimpsed popping out of the background.

Something like The Truman Show in reverse, One Hour Photo suggests that any nut with a camera can turn anyone else into the unwilling star of a private fantasy. (Filmmakers take note.) Romanek’s movie is a bit too pat and pleased with its undeniable ambitions, but the setup resonates with quiet desperation. There’s not a single vicarious glorch.

As the air-conditioning bargain of the summer, the Walter Reade is offering nearly six hours of tumultuous action in the form of two wildly exotic national epics: Mother India (1957) and The Fall of Otrar (1990).

The former, arguably the most popular and influential movie ever produced in India (its initial release intended to coincide with the tenth anniversary of Indian independence), is an outrageous masala of apparently discordant elements. Inspired by a Pearl S. Buck paean to the heroic Chinese peasantry, writer-director-producer Mehboob Khan (known simply as Mehboob) transposed Buck’s tale of suffering motherhood to a rural India enlivened by indigenous versions of Soviet-style tractor-opera, Italian neo-realism, Hollywood kiddie-cuteness, a dozen Technicolor musical numbers, and, most significantly, a metaphoric overlay of pop Hinduism. (Given the worldwide boom in religious fanaticism, it’s worth noting that, like many past and present Bollywood luminaries, the filmmaker was Muslim.)

Nargis, who had become a superstar playing opposite India’s reigning male icon Raj Kapoor, capped her career in the volatile role of Radha, a poor woman who survives 40 years of natural disaster and class persecution to become something like her village’s divine avatar. The performances are broad; the comedy is mainly slapstick. The politics are nationalist and vaguely left-wing. (Mother India was banned in Turkey as Communist; Mehboob Production’s hammer and sickle logo was tactfully cut when the movie was submitted for Oscar consideration.)

Mother India is played at a high emotional pitch that is rendered all the more forceful by Mehboob’s taste for iconic, unmatched inserts, and builds to a climax of maternal sacrifice that trumps all surviving examples of Greek tragedy. Had Freud been acquainted with Mother India he might well have identified a Radhu complex—adding to the craziness is the knowledge that a year after the movie’s release, Nargis married Sunil Dutt, the actor who plays her bandit son.

The Fall of Otrar, directed by Ardak Amirkulov from a script by Alexei Guerman and Svetlana Karmalita (who also produced), is an even more convoluted expression of national identity. Produced in Kazakhstan just as the Soviet Union was falling apart, the movie evidently broke a Soviet-era taboo on dramatizing Muslim history in evoking a 13th-century universe of visceral cruelty and inexplicable intrigue.

The movie’s dense, complicated script has the same oblique quality as Guerman’s own films—My Friend Ivan Lapshin and Khrustaliov, My Car!—although the spectacle suggests the tradition of Japanese samurai epics and the spaghetti westerns that followed. The nominal hero (a role that could have been written for Toshiro Mifune) is a lone Kipchak warrior scout who calls himself “Allah’s Arrow” and, after seven years working for Genghis Khan, returns home to warn his people of the impending storm.

Shot in tinted black-and-white with occasional bursts of color, The Fall of Otrar is a movie of long, fluid takes and fabulous set design. The dramatis personae are wildly multicultural. Otrar, the capital of the pre-Kazakh Kipchaks, is an international crossroads—with all manner of Arabs, Chinese, Persians, and Slavs preparing (or not) for imminent Mongol invasion. Like George W. Bush, the Kipchak shah is obsessed with attacking Baghdad—and thus oblivious to the threat from the east.

Enigmatic from the get-go, The Fall of Otrar builds to a series of spectacular battle scenes, but the mood is never less than sardonic. After the sack of Otrar, the victorious Genghis Khan mocks the religious schisms that prevented his Muslim foes from uniting against him. With the defeated Kipchak general chained at his feet, the “Wind of God” holds forth on his place in history. Overhead, meanwhile, a heedless bird caws and shits.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 20, 2002

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