Chereau's Intimacy Is an Emotional Spectacular; Training Day Is Insidious Entertainment Built of Racist Presumptions
directed by Patrice Chereau
Last Tango in Paris casts a shadow over Patrice Chereau's Intimacy. It's the emotional honesty that naive audiences who were suckered by When Harry Met Sally, Chasing Amy or the new insipid Serendipity would like to deny. As successive generations of artists and life adventurers newly, fearfully discover the world of human relations, they'll distract themselves with talk about the film's nudity, but it's important to ignore Intimacy's "shock"?Chereau's frank depiction of physical sexual activity?and concentrate on its beauty. Chereau's analysis of an affair between a London bartender Jay (Mark Rylance) and a small-time actress Claire (Kerry Fox) distills the sexual act into an effort toward affection and connection. This is not a love story (as the great Tango became) but a vision of emotional desperation?Chereau's specialty. In his magnificent 1999 Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, Chereau broke through the unacknowledged barrier in film culture that prevents the heterosexual mainstream learning from homosexual experience. No amount of pseudo-sophistication could force most critics to speculate on Chereau's solid knowledge about relationships centered on sexual conquest. Intimacy's heterosexual-centered tale has the same candor as Those Who Love Me, which means it doesn't break through but affirms a rarely stated truth.
Isolates Jay and Claire transverse London, orbiting their assignation and jobs with Chereau's usual existential vectors (wondrously photographed by Eric Gautier and edited by Francois Gedigier). Chereau is a master of hectic, neurotic energy (palpable in the sex scenes with temperamentally lighted flesh as well as the street and barroom contacts that sustain his particular emotional vertigo). Elia Kazan anticipated this kind of energized drama, and it's not overstatement to say that Chereau is an equally good director of actors. Self-rebuke mixes with egotism in startling dialogues?especially when Jay meets a loyal husband, Andy (Timothy Spall), and tortures him with the idea of infidelity. Rylance's Jay is a concept that owes much to Brando in Tango, but the performance has distinct, startling nuances. Had James Mason showed his penis in Lolita there might have been a precedent, but Chereau takes Rylance, Fox and Spall into new acting territory. They reveal their privates in the bravest sense. It relates to the spiritual unveiling in Neil Jordan's film of Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, but Intimacy expresses a different kind of sentiment. Because the Hanif Kureishi source material is less profound than either Tango or Greene, Intimacy's insight stays in their shadow, where Those Who Love Me leapt beyond. Though small-scaled for Chereau, Intimacy (which premieres at this week's New York Film Festival) radiates his sensibility, it's an emotional spectacular.
directed by Antoine Fuqua
Denzel Washington plays the "fool-ass disloyal bitch-made punk" of Training Day. He's Alonzo Harris, a bad 13-year veteran L.A. cop teaching rookie narc Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) how to maneuver on the streets. But more than that, Washington is giving America another stereotype of black male villainy?a lesson in well-paid self-abasement. Determined to finally shake off the "new Poitier" label, Washington's Alonzo Harris is the complete antithesis to Poitier's mid-60s claim, "I represent thousands of people. I will never do anything to make them ashamed." For Washington, Training Day is a self-hatred field day. Starting out truculent, his character eschews any semblance of regular family life or social interest, wears flashy jewelry, alligator shoes, cusses a lot, sneers at people, kills people and swaggers. Washington's actually playing Samuel L. Jackson's Shaft. And to cap this shameless display, director Antoine Fuqua provides Washington with an egotistical Sonny Corleone death scene.
Training Day is cravenly designed to hit all the cliches of "urban" entertainment?that lowdown action genre of guns, low-rider cars, chase scenes and pop soundtracks Hollywood frequently uses simultaneously to entrap and stigmatize black male moviegoers. If it gives them a good time, it's no more than the same sort of hoodwink practiced by unconscientious rappers (like Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre, who also appear in Training Day) who make careers out of exploiting social degradation. It's race betrayal. But while crap rap can make the excuse of offering empowerment fantasies, Training Day has an opposite purpose. The fantasy of a vicious black cop appeals to the fear and prejudices of the very people who employ (and applaud) Washington and Fuqua. The monster Washington attempts to portray here is so embedded in Hollywood's white liberal unconscious that the filmmakers have probably convinced themselves that this movie has something to do with addressing the social problem of police corruption. But Training Day's resemblance to Los Angeles' Ramparts police scandal makes only the most remote allusion. Fuqua and screenwriter David Ayer flipflop the social bases of police corruption (ignoring the mundane, bureaucratic acceptance of wrongdoing) to follow familiar action-movie conventions. Charles Burnett subverted those conventions in 1995's The Glass Shield, updating film noir to investigate the disillusionment of a young black cadet (Michael Boatman) eager to join the LAPD. The Glass Shield suggested the long overdue need for a whole new approach to the cop movie.
Training Day has no such principled social interest. Instead of a social truth based on African-American experience, it's a cliched, now-rancid fantasy derived from the social and cultural hegemony that always refuses to acknowledge the systemic corruption of our social institutions or the way individuals acquiesce to depravity. Reassuringly, the good guy of Training Day is the young white rookie (a recently wed young father, of course) who eventually fights past Harris' taunts?such boasts as "a good narcotics agent must know and love narcotics." Who wouldn't see through that? Hoyt's defiance of Harris' bluster (in an obvious refutation of the Morgan Freeman-Brad Pitt man-boy black-white partnership in Seven) becomes a discomfortingly transparent act of white heroism. Hoyt stanches the black rogue's poison that has spread through the force and even infected the ghetto Harris patrols.
"That's my nigga!" Washington keeps saying to Hawke, devilishly attempting to seduce the young cop into smoking dope, taking bribes, committing murder. But that salutation disguises how the film transfers white perspective and identification. Coming every time Harris attempts to corrupt Hoyt, the phrase actually implies that every wrongdoer is "[a] nigga." The Training Day presskit bears out this subterfuge by describing that the now-cynical Harris (Our Nigga of the Assassins) had his former optimism "chipped away by his tour of duty in the streets" (not by previous examples of departmental impropriety). According to the presskit, "Fuqua helped prepare Washington and Hawke for their roles by taking them to meet people in some of L.A.'s most notorious neighborhoods, including gang-bangers and drug-dealers" (not interviews with other cops). It notes that even the spiffy 1978 Monte Carlo Harris drives?his cop-/pimpmobile?was especially designed for the film by Marc Laidler of 310 Motoring, "a company that customizes cars for the likes of L.A. Lakers players and other star athletes." At every point, this insidious entertainment is constructed of racist presumptions.
Don't be fooled by Fuqua's trickery such as a rearview mirror image of Denzel's eyes inserted when Hawke should be looking at him. That view is really for us, to make Harris sinister, as if presenting a documentary realistic vision. Training Day never confronts its makers' reality?the satisfaction with black stereotype that undergirds most mainstream American movies. Washington and Fuqua probably enjoy being "bad," but that's no reason to defend their actions here while totally ignoring the deeper meanings and future repercussions, as if this were just harmless entertainment. It's racist ideology writ small. Not a critique of dirty cops, just pointless flamboyance. It continues the baroque black/white duologues of Tarantino movies but is less genuine, minus Tarantino's confused, psycho-social fascination. "You got a dick don't you!" Harris challenges Hoyt. And the white boy can only respond with moral righteousness?that's even more dishonest and weak-willed than the games Tarantino plays.
By portraying Harris as an American version of the British Sexy Beast, Washington discourages any moral reassessment of the cop genre and confuses any rethinking about police corruption. Along with chewing the scenery, he mangles our sense of social imperative. Ghetto-dwellers in Training Day don't fear harassment or racial profiling, they're just numb and resentful of a single cop?and the one bad apple Hollywood will admit to is black. Washington's Harris cruises into the ghetto (here called "The Jungle") like a despot. He always draws two guns at once like an Old West gunfighter and wears a tattoo saying "Death is Certain/Life is Not." Crude and homophobic, Harris supposedly "beat a man to death in Vegas" (so he's O.J., too). It's almost irrelevant that Washington isn't quite believable in the role. This stunt performance doesn't command Morgan Freeman's seriousness or Sam Jackson's malevolence. It has that same "phony intensity" that director David Gordon Green said he felt from The Hurricane. Washington is only credible in this role if you have an a priori desire to believe him in it?that is, to buy the stereotype he's selling. And he puts a fine point on this sellout when, finally humiliated, Harris beats his chest and hollers, "King Kong ain't got shit on me!"
The late scholar James Snead argued that "In all Hollywood film portrays of blacks...the political is never far from the sexual, for it is both as a political and as a sexual threat that the black skin appears on screen." But whenever Harris is particularized in Training Day, it's to guarantee that his faults are not indicative of the system at large, nor (Snead again) "a sufficiently indirect means by which the white man could express his dim awareness of the sexual animal within himself." Washington probably relishes the grandstanding scene where he gets to beat up Hawke and taunt, "Now who's the fool-ass disloyal bitch-made punk?" But we all know the description fits himself.
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