“The dirty, not-so-little secret of documentary filmmaking is that misfortune is what makes for a good film,” says Steve James, who ought to know. Not only one of the most harrowing works of filmed nonfiction since the director’s high school-to-college basketball epic Hoop Dreams, James’s Stevie—named for a confessed pedophile—pulls the aforementioned secret so far into the movie’s text that, for James, it becomes a confession of his own.
“I was shocked and appalled by what happened,” recalls the 48-year-old filmmaker, speaking of the moment in 1997 when he learned that his subject—Stevie Fielding, an immeasurably troubled southern Illinois man to whom James had been a Big Brother in the early ’80s—had admitted to molesting an eight-year-old cousin. “And yet there’s always that little voice in the back of your head saying, ‘This is dramatic.’ It happened on Hoop Dreams, too: When William [Gates] blew out his knee, I had that nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach. But I was also thinking, ‘My God, was that a great scene?’ I think if I ever give up this kind of work, it’ll be for that reason: There are contradictions involved in wanting to make films that have a social purpose, and there are compromises you have to make in order to finish those films. And sometimes you don’t want to have to make them.”
There were times when James didn’t want to have to make Stevie. When Hoop Dreams‘ enormous success brought an offer from Disney to direct Prefontaine, based on the life of Olympic track star Steve Prefontaine, James accepted gratefully—in part for the opportunity to make some money (not even Hoop‘s $8 million gross gave the filmmaker a financial cushion), but also for the chance to put some distance between himself and an increasingly difficult subject.
“I guess I had naively thought that things would be better for Stevie than they were,” says James, who still harbored feelings of guilt over having been out of touch with his unfortunate “little brother” for nearly a decade while endeavoring to launch a film career in Chicago—a period during which Fielding was arrested a dozen times. “Having other work to do was a convenient form of relief. But after I finished Prefontaine, my thoughts kept turning to the [documentary] and to Stevie, and so I reconnected with him. Shortly after that, this crime was committed, and that brought me to another juncture where I had to decide again whether to continue. That’s the $64,000 question in this film. I obviously did continue to make the film, but my reasons, while perfectly valid, are never completely satisfying. On some level, if I had called Stevie and said, ‘Let’s not do this film. I’m going to help you, but I’m not going to do a film,’ that would have spoken better of me as a person—perhaps. Because I clearly had a dual interest here.”
Maybe the $128,000 question in Stevie is whether James’s camera gets in the way of his help—or whether a pedophile deserves a filmmaker’s help to begin with. Whatever one decides, the film is a landmark not only for its degree of proximity to the titular offender (who, further complicating matters, is not without his charms), but for its thorough inclusion in the narrative of the director himself—who regularly dares to convey his deep uncertainty about both Stevie’s reliability and his own. (A more benign example of the movie’s psychic toll can be found in the documentarian’s hair, which turned gray over the course of the four-and-a-half-year shoot.) Skirting the outer edge of self-indulgence, James concludes the film with a richly ambiguous close-up of his face as he reacts indecipherably to the claim of Fielding’s fiancée that “some good has come out” of an excruciating ordeal. Asked for a current update to that reaction, the filmmaker says he’s still not sure.
“The more idealistic side of me says that people need to understand how someone gets to a place where they commit crimes like this,” says James. “Virtually every film I’ve seen about sexual abuse has either been purely from the point of view of the victim, vilifying the offender completely as evil incarnate, or characterizing the offender without trying to show the reasons behind the offense. People always say, ‘How could anyone do that?’ Well, this is how they could do that.”
A selective preview, written by Nat Johnson, Ben Kenigsberg, Dennis Lim, David Ng, and Laura Sinagra:
BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM
Londoner Jess wants to play soccer, but her Indian parents want her to marry, become a lawyer, and learn to cook a Punjabi feast. Gurinder Chadha’s girls’ soccer film explores gender, tradition, and race, en route to its protagonist’s ecstatic ball-bending.
Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro don camouflage and play hide-and-seek in the woods. Attention Chris Cooper: This is what a Supporting Actor Oscar gets you. William Friedkin directs.
Jia Zhangke’s masterpiece, a patient, astringent ’80s chronicle whose subject is nothing less than the implacable passage of time, maps an epochal period of sociocultural transition as experienced by the members of a small-town performance troupe. The emblematic film of the new Chinese independents, and quite possibly the greatest film of the last five years.
Finally, the big-screen adaptation of doe-eyed Gen-X basket-case diva Elizabeth Wurtzel’s debut memoir. Directed by the original Insomnia’s Erik Skjoldbjaerg.
Fear and Loathing in Eugene, Oregon. Jason Schwartzman plays a speed freak who goes on a three-day psychedelic adventure. “Ray of Light” director Jonas Åkerlund reconfigures Hunter S. Thompson for the e-generation.
UNDER THE SKIN OF THE CITY
Director Rakhshan Bani-Etemad explores contemporary Iranian motherhood and its attendant miseries. Tuba (Golab Adineh) must balance her day job at a textile factory with a pregnant daughter at home and a son who wants to leave the country.
Crispin Glover stars in this remake of the 1971 creeper about a socially awkward boy with pet rats.
A suicidal man gets back to nature in Carlos Reygadas’s widescreen sex-and-salvation epic—a brash update of Herzog and Tarkovsky, already notorious for its equine-copulation scene.
DOWN AND OUT WITH THE DOLLS
Inspired by the ass-kick-itude of the Rock ‘N’ Roll Camp for Girls (and presumably Desperate Teenage Lovedolls and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), DIY-er Kurt Voss bring us the Paper Dolls, a four-girl Portland band trying to get by, get along, and clean Lemmy Kilmeister out of their closet, while rocking everybody else’s world.
Lawrence Kasdan directs a William Goldman adaptation of a Stephen King alien-invasion novel.
FULL TIME KILLER
Hong Kong action gets its art creds back with this story about a hotshot assassin (Andy Lau) and his bloody journey to the top of the heap.
VIEW FROM THE TOP
Delayed by more than one evening flight out of LaGuardia, this comedy about an aspiring stewardess will doubtless contain its share of airsickness and warm-nuts jokes. Gwyneth Paltrow channels Reese Witherspoon channeling Alicia Silverstone.
With his third feature, Jia Zhangke caps a remarkable trilogy of youth anomie, attuned as ever to provincial China’s free-trade scars and the role of pop music in dead-end lives. No Joy Division on the soundtrack, but it wouldn’t have been out of place.
Robert Duvall’s ode to the Argentine dance is sure to feature several bravura tang-offs. No body doubles here: The tireless Duvall, 72, kicks up his own storm.
Reuniting for the first time after Pulp Fiction, John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson attempt mutual career resuscitation in this story of a missing army drill instructor and the DEA agent brought in to investigate.
HEAD OF STATE
Does Chris Rock have a Warren Beatty fetish? Having thoroughly defiled Heaven Can Wait, Rock takes Bulworth’s cultural miscegenation to its logical conclusion, directing himself as a potty-mouthed presidential candidate.
RAISING VICTOR VARGAS
Casting a wry, empathic, utterly unpatronizing eye on some frisky Lower East Side teens, Peter Sollett’s debut feature nails the timeless torpor of New York summers and the fear and excitement of adolescent hormone surges.
Hoop Dream-er Steve James delivers another long-term, lovingly composed documentary about his own attempt to check in with the man he mentored as a boy in the Big Brothers program years ago.
Having acted in no less than five Marguerite Duras adaptations, Jeanne Moreau finally gets to play the old lady herself in Josée Dayan’s tale of autumnal lust and lapsed sobriety.
FELLINI: I’M A BORN LIAR
This documentary explores the life of the late Italian film titan through intimate interviews and never-before-seen footage from his films.
THE GOOD THIEF
Set in the seedy underworld of Nice, Neil Jordan’s caper follows Nick Nolte’s aging gambler as he attempts to rob a casino, unaware that the police have already been tipped off.
BETTER LUCK TOMORROW
Your favorite Asian stereotypes are confirmed then reversed in this story of a group of high school overachievers who attempt to redefine “extra-curricular activities.”
This adaptation of the violent Japanese anime series boasts a Mission to Mars and a deadly virus war fought by the Bebops, a team of intergalactic bounty hunters.
Adapted from Anne Nelson’s post-9-11 play, Jim Simpson’s film chronicles a writer’s struggle to eulogize fallen firefighters. Sigourney Weaver acts as if reading for a book on tape.
Gravity, more like. Billy Bob Thornton stars as a murderer just released from prison, searching for, you guessed it, redemption.
Sweet salvation?: Kati Outinen in Aki Kaurismäki’s The Man Without a Past
photo: Marja-Lana Hukkanen
THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST
Good to see Aki Kaurismäki’s triumphant victory lap on the festival circuit last year, even if this bittersweet deadpan romance ranks among the Finn’s fluffier efforts. An amnesiac (Markku Peltola) winds up in a squatters’ encampment and finds love with a Salvation Army worker (Kati Outinen, who won Best Actress at Cannes).
Colin Farrell answers a pay phone only to find himself embroiled in a deadly game with the caller.
Liliana Cavani’s first non-TV film since 1994 is a rather staid adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s third Ripley novel (previously filmed by Wim Wenders as The American Friend), starring John Malkovich as the titular haut schemer.
After garnering raves for Punch-Drunk Love and About Schmidt, Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson return to the mainstream. The former plays a meek businessman remanded to an anger management program after an incident on a plane; the latter is his therapist.
DOWN WITH LOVE
Doris Day gets the Far From Heaven makeover in this homage to Pillow Talk. No gay subtext here: Miramax princess Renée Zellweger plays a smart-aleck advice columnist who falls for Ewan McGregor’s sexist cad.
Lukas Moodysson, erstwhile Swedish maestro of feel-good, shifts gears with this relentlessly feel-bad evocation of cyclical despair in the former Soviet Union. In the lead, teenage Oksana Akinshina endures disappointment and degradation with astonishing poise.
MAROONED IN IRAQ/CALL
Bahman Ghobadi (A Time for Drunken Horses) directs this story about an Iranian Kurd who ventures into war-torn Iraq in search of his wife.
Get it? Female/male? Rom-com drivel via Sundance.
Globetrotting kung fu master (Chow Yun-Fat) mentors punk-ass white boy (Seann William Scott). From the director of Mariah Carey’s video “Honey.”
LOVE AND DIANE
First-time documentarian Jennifer Dworkin follows Diane, a Brooklyn mother reunited with the six children she abandoned during a years-long crack addiction, focusing on her relationship with teenage daughter Love (a new mother herself) as they struggle with jobs, government bureaucracy, poor housing, and HIV.
A MIGHTY WIND
Christopher Guest deconstructs more mystifying Americana, this time in the form of the Folksmen, a Carnegie Hall-bound trio of “eclectified folk” singers.
MONDAYS IN THE SUN
This story of unemployed dockworkers swept the Goyas and edged out Talk to Her as Spain’s official Academy Award entry.
Jacques Perrin (Microcosmos) brings us this documentary about the migratory patterns of birds. Shot over three years with five teams of filmmakers.
What begins as a typical mentoring relationship between an English teacher (David Strathairn) and his troubled 18-year-old student (Agnes Bruckner) soon evolves into something more complicated.
Edward Burns didn’t write or direct, but he’s singing the same old tune: Small-time thug gets in too deep. This time with bigger-time thug Dustin Hoffman.
Stuck in a Paris traffic jam, two strangers in the night get in the mood for love. Claire Denis’s blissful waking dream is, above all, a sustained swoon of magnified gesture and microscopic detail.
HOUSE OF FOOLS
When a Russian asylum is taken over by Chechen troops, a young patient falls in love with one of the soldiers, to the dismay of her boyfriend—Bryan Adams, playing himself!
James Mangold tries his hand at Fincher-esque boogie-boo. Ten strangers are stranded at a Vegas motel and then start dying on each other.
IT RUNS IN THE FAMILY
Douglas Family Values. Kirk, Michael, and Cameron play three generations of a feuding New York family. Fred Schepisi directs.
PEOPLE I KNOW
In his most entertaining performance in years, Al Pacino plays a grizzled publicist who stumbles into a New York netherworld of secret opium dens and high-level Jewish conspiracies.
THE DANCER UPSTAIRS
A Peruvian detective tracks down a Marxist terrorist in John Malkovich’s directorial debut. The tragic foreshadowing is thick, but not as thick as Javier Bardem’s accent.
Jeff Blitz’s documentary follows eight young obsessive teenagers (and their oft-bewildered parents) on their way to the National Spelling Bee.
ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE
O brothers where art thou? A Pennebaker/Hegedus production that covers similar territory as Standing in the Shadows of Motown, in a similar way: lots of recent performances by classic soul musicians, this time Wilson Pickett, Mary Wilson, Rufus Thomas, and Sam Moore.
Richard Kwietniowski follows Love and Death on Long Island with the most understated and deglamorized of gambling movies—Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the depressive compulsive of the title.
The X-Men are back, still misunderstood victims of mutant bigotry. Now they must find a way to combat the forces of psychotic military leader William Stryker.
AND NOW . . . LADIES AND GENTLEMEN
In Claude Lelouch’s latest, Jeremy Irons, having already starred as Humbert Humbert, plays Valentin Valentin, a British jewel thief who tries to leave his old life behind.
Notable mainly for being acquired by Miramax on September 10, 2001 (and kept under wraps since), Gregor Jordan’s softer-than-Wilder satire imagines a U.S. Army base near Stuttgart in 1989 as an iniquitous frat house.
DADDY DAY CARE
Eddie Murphy takes on unruly tykes; his movie career, meanwhile, takes on new levels of irrelevancy.
THE SHAPE OF THINGS
Adapting his own stridently glib and specious Off-Broadway play, Neil LaBute keeps the claustrophobia at a sadistic maximum.
DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY
Hired by Canadian TV to shoot a Royal Winnipeg Ballet production of the Bram Stoker novel, Guy Maddin combines dead silent-movie language with newfangled digital manipulations to create a dementedly brilliant, richly allegorical fever dream.
THE MATRIX RELOADED
Real-life tragedy delayed the rapid reload of Andy and Larry Wachowski’s sci-fantastic mega-sequel (cast members Aaliyah and “Oracle” Gloria Foster both died during filming). But somberly, work continued, resulting in two more installments of our high-flying cadre’s battle with the mindfuck technogogues who put reality down, flip it, and reverse it.
Prolific social realist Ken Loach returns with this story of a Scottish teenager raising money for his family. Paul Laverty’s screenplay won the award at Cannes.
Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father) tells the semi-autobiographical story of an Irish immigrant family who decide to relocate to New York following the death of their son.
Jim Carrey, perhaps realizing that he was turning into late-career Robin Williams, heads back to goofball territory. Granted all of God’s powers for a day, Carrey toilet trains his dog and gives his girlfriend a boob job.
An eccentric woman in an isolated Italian fishing village is the subject of frequent gossip. When her husband is convinced by others to send her away to a medical expert in Milan, her son becomes her lone supporter.
Baltasar Kormákur follows his slacker manifesto, 101 Reykjavik, with something altogether more excitable: soapy family dysfunction à la The Celebration.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 4, 2003