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Adding Kick To the Chic

7 minute read
Richard Corliss



THE BOTTOM LINE: When young directors choose a hero for their first films, the outlaw is in.

THE APPRENTICE PAINTER HONES his rough craft by sketching a bowl of fruit or a reclining nude. The would-be novelist pulls a diary from her dresser and changes the names. But ambitious young filmmakers, with a fondness for old genres and an eye to the box office, take tours of the underworld. When in doubt, go with the gangsters. Not every first-time director can make Citizen Kane; the budget, let alone the vision, would be out of reach. But a Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese’s 1973 breakthrough film about a brotherhood of toughs in Manhattan’s Little Italy, is something to shoot for.

And keep on shooting. Blam! Blam! In this year’s heralded crop of low-budget films from tyro directors, the outlaw is in. Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs: gangsters pull a heist, then engage in a long therapy session of bitchery and carnage. Tom Kalin’s Swoon: those gay cutups of the ’20s, Leopold and Loeb, are back, artier and hornier than ever. Stacy Cochran’s My New Gun: doctor gives his restless wife a handgun; audience waits for it to go off. Add two other, more seasoned directors of outlaw movies — Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant) and Hal Hartley (Simple Men) — and you have a tough new movie generation. If they’d all gone to film school, their yearbook portraits would be mug shots.

They follow the lead of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Blood Simple (1984), which targeted as its audience the cinema intelligentsia bored with both the languid pace of European festival films and the exhausted formulas of Hollywood. These moviegoers want a little kick with their chic. To their rescue ride the art- house outlaws.

These movies embody the lure and liberation of irresponsibility. Their makers know that evil, as a dramatic subject, is no more compelling than the moral ambiguities — the career fears and emotional compromises — that rule most people’s lives, but it is more photogenic. Here is the new creed: movies are pictures of stuff happening. And the uglier the stuff, the more, well, cinematic the result. Naked aggression is sexy. I shout in your face. I spit in your face. I blow off your face. I blow up your family. I blow up the city. So many films today want to begin with invective and end in apocalypse. Everybody dies; get there first. Made it, Ma! End of the world!

That’s the itinerary of the ultra-violent gangsters in Reservoir Dogs. When they are not exploring the priapic subtext of lyrics to Madonna songs or debating the efficacy of tipping, they are shooting (or, vividly, torturing) anyone who gets in their way, including themselves. It’s Glengarry Glen Ross at gunpoint. The talented Tarantino has devised one bravura sequence in which an undercover detective acts out, for the benefit of the duped hoodlums, a fake story about a close call with the cops; easing from the past tense to the present and then into seductive fantasy, the sequence reveals how we all must be performers, acting for our lives. But most of the movie is Actors Acting: gifted guys (Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi, Chris Penn) running nattering riffs on familiar lout themes.

Swoon, another fable of a vicious, failed crime, renounces the garish naturalism of Reservoir Dogs. Swoon is artifice aspiring to art. So was the 1924 atrocity it portrays. When Nathan Leopold (Craig Chester) and Richard Loeb (Daniel Schlachet), two rich young homosexuals, murdered the child Bobby Franks, they were creating a portrait of themselves: powerful elitists, unsullied by the vulgarity of conscience. Director Kalin — a comer — is smart enough not to explain the murderers. Instead, in a chiaroscuro cinema style that suggests morgue photos taken by Cecil Beaton, he presents the pair as stars of their own camp pageant, a sickly sweet deb ball, where the revelers dance all night on the bodies of their inferiors, then wake up to find their dreams in chains.

Some people are condemned by what they dare to do, others by what they dare not. Debbie (Diane Lane), the harried housewife in My New Gun, seems reluctant to keep her revolver, let alone fire it. But her weirdly devoted, devoutly weird neighbor Skippy (James LeGros) is happy to take it off her hands. Debbie’s pompous husband (Stephen Collins) to Skippy: “What are you doing with my wife’s gun in your pants?” My New Gun’s dramatic tension arises both * from the eccentricity of the performers — except for the sweetly befuddled Lane, the only human on this planet — and from the audience’s familiarity with so many other movies where guns go off all the time. It has the assured, affectless style of Twin Peaks remade as a sitcom.

My New Gun is Freon; Bad Lieutenant is sulfur. Ferrara’s fifth film, about a New York City police officer (Keitel again) caught in a toxic vortex of drugs, sex and gambling, has been rated NC-17. Two scenes are indelibly repellent. In one, a nun is raped in a church; in the other, the cop viciously and pathetically humiliates two teenagers with verbal sexual abuse. The movie, a lapsed Catholic’s anguished prayer for last-minute salvation, says the cop is so addicted to sin he can’t enjoy it. “Vampires are lucky,” observes the cop’s junkie girlfriend (co-screenwriter Zoe Lund). “They can feed on others. We gotta eat away at ourselves.” Bad Lieutenant is a serious film about the gnawing of conscience and the thirst for redemption, but the tone is so dispassionately vile it may leave viewers shaken or sick.

So emerge from hell into the Zen state of suspended agitation that Hal Hartley calls Long Island (though Simple Men was actually filmed in Texas). In the writer-director’s third feature, following The Unbelievable Truth and Trust, a handsome bank robber (Robert Burke) and his decent younger brother (William Sage) search for their father, “the radical shortstop,” who played for the Dodgers in the ’50s and reputedly bombed the Pentagon in the ’60s. Fugitive and busted on Long Island, the brothers fall in with the Hartley stock company of cagey women and forlorn men. To their deadpan surprise, the brothers find that they are needed. Or at least tolerated. Tolerated will do.

Without half trying, Simple Men synthesizes outlaw cinema. It has a quest and a heist. It offers analysis of both Madonna (who “exploits her sexuality on her own terms; that means she names the price”) and the Madonna (“She has a nice personality; she’s also the Mother of God”). It has outlaws and in- laws. It’s got tough guys waxing poetic and stupid guys acting tough. If Clint Eastwood were to play all the roles in a Woody Allen movie, it would sound like this: a flinty reading of home truths after the home burned down. “There’s no such thing as adventure,” the robber says. “No such thing as romance. There’s only trouble and desire.”

Makes sense to anybody who’s gone to the ‘plex lately. Or maybe Hartley is kidding. It’s hard to tell with the smartest, orneriest new outlaw in the movies.

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