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Cinema: Art, War, Death and Sex

6 minute read
Richard Corliss and Richard Schickel


“There ain’t nothin’ to it but to do it.” Armed with this bromide, an easy wit and $100,000, Robert Townsend made a movie. Suddenly the actor (A Soldier’s Story) was his own producer, director and coauthor. The film might be his own life too. Bobby Taylor (Townsend) works days at a hot-dog stand while enduring auditions with casting directors who want every black actor to be Eddie Murphy or Super Dude or “just a little more . . . black?” He secures the title role in a blaxploitation epic called Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge, only to chuck it all for a little self-R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Bobby ends up happyish, doing public-service TV spots. Robert, though, earned a happier ending than his film dared hope: Hollywood Shuffle is a surprise hit.

The picture’s comedy sketches tend to take a good idea and limp with it. The visual style will not send Steven Spielberg back to film school. But Townsend engages the viewer with a lot of cute fantasy-parodies. In a TV review show, Sneakin’ in the Movies, the streetwise critics give thumbs up only to a sci-fi thriller called Attack of the Street Pimps. A TV commercial for the Black Acting School shows its (white) teachers providing the finer points of jive talking and stud strutting. Bobby stars in a Stallone-style epic, Rambro: First Young Blood, and wins the Best Actor Oscar over Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. Townsend knows Bobby fully lives where we all live, in dreams of glory, agony, love — of life’s infinite possibilities. In real life, most of those dreams are dashed or deferred. So who wouldn’t be pleased enough to pay the price of a movie ticket to see Townsend’s come true?


It is wonderful to encounter movie people when they have just come off a tough location shoot, especially if they are as bright and observant as Spalding Gray, who had a small part in The Killing Fields when it was shot in Thailand in 1983. As one of those functionaries who mainly sit around waiting for the screw-ups to be corrected, Gray used his time to work up a funny monologue in which his experiences, giddily exaggerated, commented on the folly and wastefulness of human enterprise. Further, Gray had the wit not to waste his routine in living rooms. He staged his chat — just the speaker seated at his desk, a map behind him — in theaters across the U.S. Now Director Jonathan Demme has filmed it in a manner matching Gray’s; it is expert in an innocent- seeming way.

The writer-performer understands that a movie company working in the Third World is a colonial microcosm. Its technology is imperious in its imperatives; its largesse inevitably provokes all sorts of mutually exploitative muddles with the locals. This is a valid, if modest, insight, and Gray projects himself agreeably as a rational naif. But The Killing Fields took up themes far transcending show-biz silliness. It was about the 1975 fall of America’s Cambodian client state to the genocidal revolutionaries of the Khmer Rouge. Gray’s attempt to deal wryly with themes on this scale finally fails. His is a dispassionate sensibility, and he is not a strong enough actor — nor has he a strong enough intelligence — to fight his way out of the false analogy he has drawn between moviemaking and tragic history in the making. –By Richard Schickel


Heaven is the sweet punch line man has created for the end of his lifelong joke. To the interview subjects in Diane Keaton’s documentary, it is even more. One of them says earnestly all people in heaven will be white, and a boy declares that you’ll walk on cotton balls and eat pale food like marshmallows. And when you have sex in heaven, the offspring must be “little dead people,” because you have to be gone to get there. A Salvation Army officer describes death as being “promoted to glory.” Reunited with their life’s loves, the elect will find pure ecstasy. “If I love you now like I do,” says a man devotedly to his young son, “what’s it gonna be like then?”

So much fine material, put to such shoddy use. Like Woody Allen’s Zelig, Heaven raids archives for vintage film clips; like Warren Beatty’s Reds, it calls on witnesses to describe and argue about its theme. But both sources are compromised by the directorial sneer. Keaton rarely lets a remark or a film sequence run complete; instead she bends its intent to her skewed reading. The interviewees are photographed through cookie-cutout shadows, distracting the audience as well as the subjects. These are the techniques of a filmmaker short on trust, and the condescending tone rankles throughout. Sitting through Heaven is like a painful promotion to glory. –R.C.


It hardly took the Mayflower Madam to alert the citizenry to the news that genteel women had taken up prostitution. French films had the story 20 years ago: Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour and Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her spoke of suburban housewives who supplemented their allowances by turning tricks. The twist in Lizzie Borden’s new film is that its call-girl protagonist Molly (Louise Smith) uses her earnings to support her half of a lesbian relationship.

Even with its carefully tatty pseudo-documentary air, Working Girls is not novel or shocking. Nor does it astonish in its insights. The transaction between a hooker and a john is not complex. The women are justifiably contemptuous of their clients, who are mostly in wan pursuit of dismal fantasies. To imply that this is a paradigm of the male-female relationship is closer to feminist propaganda than to home truth.

Still, there is down-to-earthiness in the women’s conversation between assignments. And Writers Borden and Sandra Kaye have created a memorable character in Lucy (Ellen McElduff), the Miss Manners of madams, compulsive in her record keeping and her insistence on tidiness and decorum. One can imagine Lucy succeeding as well in a more lawful form of shadiness — public relations, perhaps. In any case, McElduff achieves a level of wry social commentary that the rest of the film only aspires to. –R.S.

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