• U.S.

CINEMA: The Little Movies That Could

9 minute read
Richard Corliss

The Hollywood line is that this has been a summer of adult movies. But Forrest Gump, Wolf and Clear and Present Danger are not primarily for adults — that is, for grownups in search of films a bit more demanding than those in the standard coming-of-age, horror and thriller genres. Somebody has to wonder: Can there be other kinds of pictures? And if they exist, can they connect with a sufficient number of appreciative viewers?

The answers, right now, are yes and yes. American independent films — pictures made on low budgets and released by smaller distributors — are shouldering their way into the Top 20 chart of weekly box-office winners. How low is low-budget? Kevin Smith’s Clerks, a wonderful day-in-the-life comedy set in a New Jersey convenience store, arrives next month. The total budget was $27,575. If Smith were given, say, the $100 million that True Lies is reputed to have cost, he could make 3,626 movies.

But forget the money. Almost by definition, independent films are acts of love, not commerce. They are informed by the moviemaker’s passion to put a vision on screen, and the process usually takes torturous years. That may be one reason so many of these films seem on the sour side. When getting a picture made means hocking your car, borrowing on your inheritance and panhandling your friends, the art that results can look pretty desperate. All the new films discussed below, even the comedies, play like cries from the heart — want ads from the abused and the absurd.

White male, early 20s, just wants to get through the day.

Dante (Brian O’Halloran) has the night shift at the Quick Stop convenience store in Leonardo, New Jersey. Bright, dour and put-upon, he wastes or redeems his time by fretting about life — about everything but his place in it, which he accepts with a readiness that annoys his friend Randal (Jeff Anderson). Clerks is a nothing-much-happens -and-ain’t-that-the-big-truth? movie that gets considerable mileage from a couple of white guys, and their friends and customers, sitting around talking.

The film looks no more expensive than it was; some of the acting (by local nonprofessionals) is spectacularly amateurish; the story is a series of anecdotes about hockey, shopping and loving the one you’re with. But it’s worth loitering in this shop. You never know what headline will show up on the cover of a tabloid (SPACE ALIEN REVEALED AS HEAD OF TIME WARNER — REPORT STOCK INCREASE).

Yes, the film has its share of scabrous banter — recombinant four-letter words galore — but the conceit of Clerks is that foul-mouthed Jersey louts have elaborate vocabularies and pensive personalities. When Randal isn’t shocking the frail with a list of porn-movie titles, he is offering such bartender wisdom to Dante as this: “That seems to be the leitmotiv of your life, ever backing down.” Insults cascade into insights; obscenity snowballs into philosophy. Keeping the mind alert and the tongue sharp — for the eloquent jerks in Clerks, that’s more than a defense mechanism. It’s a vocation.

White male, late teens, desires to be left alone, preferably in the bathroom.

Raymond (Jeremy Davies) is the ideal student, the ideal son. So when his bullying, philandering dad tells the boy to give up a prestigious summer job to care for his mother (Alberta Watson), he does so. Mom, who has broken her leg, is a dish, and David O. Russell’s Spanking the Monkey soon reveals itself as The Graduate with one more taboo dropped. Instead of being seduced by his girlfriend’s mother, Raymond eliminates the middle-woman and emulates Oedipus. . The tone here is so dry that many viewers refuse to see this smart-looking film as a comedy. It is — a comedy of desperation, about a kid who really doesn’t want to have sex with anyone but himself. The movie is finally predictable, but it has connected with a generation that believes it has been saddled with the thankless job of raising its own parents.

Hispanic females, late teens and already older than Eve, seek communal sisterhood. Motherhood we had forced upon us years ago.

In the Echo Park section of Los Angeles, it’s hard for a man to survive. And it’s almost harder for a woman to survive when her man is gunned down, sent to jail or on the lam from his responsibilities. From this sorority of the damned, writer-director Allison Anders (Gas Food Lodging) highlights four young women in the episodic Mi Vida Loca/My Crazy Life. For them, romantic yearning is like an image of lovers on a drive-in movie screen: huge and fleeting. The film has too many slow spots, and its message is laid on with a trowel, but it has a kind of perverse Hollywood glamour. When the camera holds on the gorgeous, thoughtful faces of Marlo Marron and Salma Hayek, beauty becomes truth — the repository of hope and despair.

Black male, 12, wishes to play chess and, somehow, stop the ghetto madness.

We’ve seen it all before — if not in movies, then on the local news. A boy still in grade school peddles cocaine for drug lords; he seems set for a short, brutal sentence in the prison of the inner city. But we have not seen that story Fresh, from the perspective of young Michael (Sean Nelson), who has a lively brain and a vengeful spirit to ensure his success on the streets. Nor have we seen the tale through the acute camera eye of writer-director Boaz Yakin.

With its forays into Manhattan’s Washington Square Park for lessons in chess from a sympathetic father figure (here it’s the always authoritative Samuel L. Jackson), the movie might aim to be a Searching for Bobby Fischer in the Hood. But Fresh is so much more: a really good film, for a start, made with a subtle precision that suggests a Vermeer landscape of the ninth circle of hell. Fresh alchemizes the terrifying cliches of urban melodrama into annihilating poetry. A guarantee: the film’s last shot — just a boy’s face, in ruins — will break your heart.

White male, late 20s, wants to visit Paris, pull off a bank heist with a psychotic old friend, and just maybe survive.

All right, just because a film is small, that doesn’t guarantee it’s good. Like Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino, Roger Avary is a graduate of clerking in video stores — the new film school. But Avary, who worked with Tarantino on True Romance and Pulp Fiction, has not yet found his voice, at least to judge from Killing Zoe, a noisy heist film with Eric Stoltz as the blase American in Paris.

The movie is a replay of Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, a bloody study of macho alienation and Method posturing. Jean-Hugues Anglade, the French star of Betty Blue, La Femme Nikita and the forthcoming Queen Margot, bites off huge chunks of scenery as the nutty gang leader; his performance is a great geyser of bad acting.

White female, fun-loving, 20s, wants to meet some hot babes.

Go Fish, written by Guinevere Turner (who is also a charmer in the lead role of Max) and Rose Troche, and directed by Troche, offers a radical take on lesbians: they’re human beings. Imagine! They can be funny and horny. They look for love and, when they’re not looking, fall in it. Max, “a carefree Sappho lesbo,” hooks up with gawky Ely (V.S. Brodie), who finds it hard to commit to anything, even a haircut. And just like real people — oh, yes — lesbians can be long-winded, tortured and smug.

The movie makes an asset of its minimal budget by interpolating abstract footage and a few surreal “trial” sequences that both tease and pay homage to gay feminism. For the uninitiated, there are a few comic “inside” glimpses, as when Max and her clan gossip about lesbians in history, from k.d. lang all the way back to Eve. At heart, though, Go Fish is a chummy date movie about the mundane, urgent business of finding a lover. Max could be any teen on the Friday-night prowl, but with a nice bending of Hollywood theology: girl meets girl, girl gets girl, nobody goes berserk.

Very white males, 20s, wish the world would accept them for what they are: American yuppies, and isn’t that enough?

Whit Stillman always stands out in the grungy group portrait of American independents: he’s the one in the navy-blue blazer and old school tie. In Metropolitan, released in 1990, he created an engaging circle of Manhattan debs and preppies, enthralled by their own obsolescence. In Barcelona, on a larger canvas, Stillman paints a sympathetic portrait of two Americans — Ted (Taylor Nichols), a genteel businessman, and his snarkier cousin, Fred (Chris Eigeman), a naval officer — adrift in Spain during what the film, with beguiling pomposity, calls “the last decade of the cold war.”

Two movies into what deserves to be a long and unfettered career, Stillman has fashioned a subspecies of civilized male that is as well defined as a Fitzgerald beau or a Cheever suburbanite. They are the young, Reagan-bred Republicans who astounded their parents by turning out exactly like them, but with a coating of Lettermanesque irony. They see The Graduate from the viewpoint of the spurned, stuffy groom. They believe that being a salesman is “not just a job but a culture.” They read the Bible while dancing alone to Glenn Miller’s PEnnsylvania 6-5000. And when they encounter sensuous senoritas who declare, “I don’t go to bed with just anyone anymore — I have to be attracted to him sexually,” these paragons of starched Waspness engage in prime Whit Stillman cross talk:

Ted: Spanish girls are very promiscuous.

Fred: You’re such a prig.

Ted: I wasn’t using promiscuous pejoratively.

Fred: I wasn’t using prig pejoratively.

Barcelona has been scorned in some corners for wearing its conservatism on its tailored sleeve. But no film, especially an independent film, should hew to a company line of political rectitude. Besides, a Stillman movie delights because it shows its men-about-town to be just as estranged as any deli clerk or Harlem youth. And how eager they all are for love — as eager as any downtown lesbians. Barcelona is just that kind of post-modern romance: a G.O.P. Fish.

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