Levi'snew tv ad features a pig-faced young actress who might have been in Larry Clark'sodious, factitious debut film Kids. She stares into the camera, brightand insolent, giving an insipid political testimony: "I think you oughtto work for what you get. Like a big house, nobody should give that to you."This harsh, out-of-place social maxim?crudely spoken with a smirk?exploitsfringe ideology (the Levi's campaign contrives oddball individuality).It could be endorsed by the Village Voice as pomo boho or, elsewhere,as brazen prerogative. Still, it's specious. The girl's short-cropped,white-dyed hair contrasting her round cheeks and dumpling features is just aneo-punk look, both severe and pampered?Archie Bunker's granddaughter.It's an attitude advertisers have picked up from contemporary art photographythat uses transgressive style as a hip mode.
So it takes professional,committed, recognizable actors like Melanie Griffith and James Woods, the starsof Another Day in Paradise, to ensure some semblance of credibility past the tendency toward teen and class exploitation. It's doubtful that Clarkwill ever get his chickenhawk cinema right (unless that's the kind of cinemayou're looking for) any more than Levi's will ever promote compassion.Clark pushes Gus Van Sant's old esthetic: slumming via underclass concupiscence.This approach is so suspicious (replete with a white-negro r&b and blues soundtrack) that its Hollywoodization in Another Day in Paradise provideswelcome distance from specious realism. Sneak thief Bobbie (VincentKartheiser) is introduced half-nude and wasted in bed with his smack-addictedgirlfriend Rosie (Natasha Gregson Wagner). He trudges his way toward robbing a vending machine?the phoniest, most gratuitously gory murder/robbery sinceHenry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Then these delinquents-in-the-woodsrun off until they're soon "adopted" by an older pair of lowlifes:the druggie thief Mel (James Woods) and his woman, Sidney (Griffith), and togetherthe quartet motors through the Midwest in a black Eldorado looking for marks. Another nuclear family parody(apparently a favorite topic in 90s Hollywood), this one's better thanBoogie Nights, though basically the same facile sentiments are apparent.Bobbie looks to Mel as buddy and father, their dynamics replaying the proverbialabused tenderness and miscommunication. ("What did I do to make you dothis to me?" is the key line.) At points Mel and Bobbie's dysfunctionhas classic resonance?so many mentorships being fragile and misaligned?butthe film's essential bad-boy mode misses the authenticity of, say, Last Exit to Brooklyn (the ne plus ultra of the Clark/Van Sant esthetic).Bobbie and Mel's relationship also lacks the insight that Tony Kaye andEdward Norton realized in the best scene of American History X, wherethe son learns from the father a common but twisted way to live in the world. Clark is enthralled by low-classidiosyncrasies and habits, as if mean living were the essence of living?aparticular middle-class fantasy that Woods and Griffith probably share, and which no doubt strikes naive Gen-Xers Kartheiser and Gregson Wagner as unquestionable.But I trust these actors' sincerity the way I question Clark's proclivityand the non-actors' culpability in Kids and (the Clark-VanSant influenced) Gummo. Brecht would approve of the distance and instructionthat these trained actors automatically imply in the ignorant lifestyles theyrepresent and the desperate emotions they take on. They make this backroadstour of American immorality less freakily grotesque?giving it an accessiblebalance of humor and tragedy. If the film's slapstick happy ending recallsFive Easy Pieces that's because Woods and Griffith evoke a moralempathy rare in Clark's universe. (The background use of Dylan's "EveryGrain of Sand" also adds a fitting class perspective.) There's moreintegrity in these actors' identification with society's vanquishedthan in Clark's porno-anthropology. Griffith portrays a particularfeminine paranoia and suffering (the grown-up correlative to Gregson Wagner'sjunkie Winona). Sidney wears her hurt on her face; full, glossy lips and perfect mascara and eyeliner make her psychic wounds seem painted over. Staring at middleage, she's seen at least that much of life from living with an erratic,dangerous man, and her face, of necessity, becomes her armor. That actressymask almost provided a characterization in Celebrity until Woody Allenturned the plot against Griffith (and all the female characters). Clark is probablyso fascinated by Griffith's history of teen exploitation and survival thathe takes to documenting her neuroses; thus, she's transparent enough?actressenough?to reveal the struggling, conflicted, anxious woman underneath theshowbiz mask. You'd expect to dousethat Levi's chick with her own Perrier at the Blue Water Grill, but formernymphet Griffith stands in for every mature woman who has clung to the art of feminine wiles not as brazen prerogative but as a social defense. Griffith'sface seems to swell with exhaustion and compassion. The context is close toJeff Bridges' working-class verite junkie in American Heart, butGriffith's verisimilitude transcends genre the way the always estimableBridges did not (he was better at prole authenticity opposite Jane Fonda inThe Morning After). Maybe Griffith rose to this level of sincerity oppositethe always intense Woods (his asshole schtick, though proficient as ever, hasstopped being enlightening). Her quiet consistency is spellbinding. She makesthis losers' panorama better than the lower-depths exploitation Clark generallypresents by preserving?yes?some sentimental decency. Because you cansee a private terror in Sidney's eyes and wrinkles, her humanity is affirmedbeyond Clark's contrived plot. For the others, this DrugstoreCowboy rehash is only adequately performed?they go the Cassavetes routeof genuine emotional investment. But Griffith succeeds where the perspectives of Clark (and lately Van Sant) misrepresent white underclass or criminal-classdrudgery. Sidney would never say, "Nobody should give you a big house."The sparkle in her jaded eye suggests that she respects such a precious, fundamentaldream. She's a classic American dreamer who grieves Rosie's misspentyouth and gives Bobbie a second chance?a chance to escape. Sidney's humane gestureis also a political act. What looks like latent maternal instinct (the clicheof Julianne Moore's role in Boogie Nights) makes better sense herebecause Sidney more closely identifies with Bobbie's vulnerability thanRosie's wastrel punkette. That's called original insight into character?theBritish actresses in Hilary and Jackie don't show it (for all their showing off) and Fernanda Montenegro does something much more conventional andtired in Central Station. But Griffith has often shown this underappreciatedgift?it nearly redeemed Mike Nichols' dishonest Working Girland it proved to be the heart of De Palma's complex porno satire BodyDouble. Griffith's integrity can't be taught (she had it eversince Night Moves and The Drowning Pool and even such unlikelyfilms as A Stranger Among Us and Milk Money). It's also hardfor some to discern, but in Another Day in Paradise, Griffith'sravaged humanity is beautiful to behold. Clipped Notjust the best critic on the Web. Now that you can buy DVDs from Amazon.com,a Web monster who treats movies as product, you may prefer to visit DVDExpress.com,where movies are regarded as an art form. DVDExpress has employed that rarity,a genuine film critic, who brings wit and perspicacity to films as diverse asSaving Private Ryan ("[It] starts with a flag, translucent againstthe sun: Spielberg sees clear through the mere patriotic symbolism of war pictureswhile illuminating the greatest American ideals") and Patch Adams("Its tag line should be 'You'll laugh, you'll die!'").Plus, there's a monthly career summary such as exemplary considerationsof Martin Scorsese and Paul Verhoeven?the best stuff ever written on either director. DVDExpress' criticgoes by the moniker "Roger Wade"?named after the Sterling Haydencharacter in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (not yet availableon DVD). That's cool by me; even better are concise, definitive analysessuch as this on Happiness: "Solondz's lacerating, honestlydisarming style?which depicts the cruelty of clashing moral defectivestypically treated as sympathetic stereotypes?consigns the Farrelly Bros.to the dustbin of p.c. history as swiftly as they did to conventional comedy.Movie culture is moving that fast and at its best, Happiness isalmost moving... Episodic and uneven...a degenerate emotional numbness characterizesthe men's common traits." Kinda makes you glad yougot on the Web to find good writing and a passion for movies?the antidoteto buffdom. Two weeks ago I despaired of other critics as an affliction. "Roger Wade" is the exception?talent and intelligence.