Find Solace in Techine's Wild Reeds or Renoir's The River, but Stay Away from Glitter

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"The hardest thing is that life goes on," one friend says to another in Wild Reeds, the finest European film of the 1990s and an epitaph for everyone's innocence. That line could be taken cynically or optimistically, but its ambiguous truth resounded?repeatedly?over the past two weeks. I'll spare you more cheap musings on the meanings of film and reality occasioned by the WTC bombing; recent events simply bear out the fact that our constant desensitizing by media has not helped us assimilate grief or handle terror. Living in a Michael Bay culture?call him the premier Desert Storm auteur?only means we've become connoisseurs of disaster. (The best point I've read on this has been Elvis Mitchell's suggestion that Independence Day was a possible inspiration to terrorists.) The taste for seeing people blown away has backfired horribly. That's not just gypsum still burning and singeing the city. Hollywood thrills have become ashes on the tongue, the taste of real flesh.

I won't make the apology of many hand-wringing culture writers who confess how superficial their work now seems to them; that's as fulsome as Arnold Schwarzenegger holding back Collateral Damage, pretending that there is an appropriate time to sell mayhem as entertainment. Critiquing culture is my way of defending its importance, and dealing with movies has never stopped being relevant. It's a way to understand life and perception?as when Millimeter magazine reporter Dan Ochiva made poetry by simply remarking of tv's heavy-rotation towers footage, "The sky was so blue it must be blue screen." Only God and diligent criticism will see us through that bewilderment. As therapy, try Andre Techine's Wild Reeds?or maybe Jean Renoir's The River for the scene following a tragedy when a child complains, "We carry on as if nothing happened!" And a parent explains, "Because all we can do is carry on."

Directed by Vondie Curtis Hall

Eager to please, Mariah Carey beams a bright, little-girl smile in Glitter. But she's also anxious to be admired?just the kind of precociousness that gets on people's nerves. Audiences at the film's press screening came armed with snickers (not the candy bar). And they guffawed almost throughout, pausing only to sigh and applaud at two brief location shots of the World Trade Center. Their need to feel superior to something isn't just an aberrant response to the WTC bombings but part of the same snide pop-culture reflex that caused the millions of people who bought Milli Vanilli records to suddenly develop compound amnesia/homophobia. By no means the worst film this year?Blow, Moulin Rouge, Pearl Harbor, Memento, Rock Star and several others are more offensive?Glitter is merely lame. Yet it plays right into the public's viciousness. It feeds envious fans' desires to bare their fangs.

Director Vondie Curtis Hall opens with an awkward, mistimed scene of an alcoholic black woman slurring her way through a nightclub performance and then forcing her blonde, prepubescent daughter to come onstage to sing with her. Nothing in this introduction of little Billie Frank before she becomes a glittery "musical, singing sensation" plays right. Its instant dose of misery immediately diminishes movie-musical expectations. Hopes sink as Glitter presents Carey in precious few musical numbers, just a laggardly, obvious rise-to-success story borrowed from A Star Is Born, Mahogany, Purple Rain and The Bodyguard.

Last month's rerelease of Funny Girl revealed an old-fashioned and prosaic plot designed with one purpose?to present a showcase for Barbra Streisand, another star whose egotism kicks in to cover up vulnerability. But Hall and screenwriter Kate Lanier seem unaware of how showbiz struggle looks and feels, or how audiences relate to Mariah Carey. Glitter too frivolously presents biracial Billie announcing "I'm mixed" without grounding the movie in a celebration of the story's 80s-set multiracial culture or the crossover emotions heard in pop music. Instead, the movie gets solemn rather than provocative?unlike Prince in Purple Rain, playing with mixed parentage and ultimately fusing race and sex divisions. Carey herself might have dissolved all complexity, same as her recording career to this point exults in it, projecting r&b melodies and biracial insouciance. With her child's face in a teenage girl body (needlessly accessorized with zigzags of silver body paint), Carey displays that large emotional quality some pop singers have over actors. She comes with her own starshine (blazoning one style of race-mixing) but Hall showcases this gift only once: when a disco DJ, Dice (Max Beesley), finds Billie on the crowded dance floor, hands her a mic and she extemporizes for half a verse. At that point Carey rouses joy in performing. And she's already a better actress than Madonna because her singing actually expresses something. (Scenes in which Billie gets nervous because Eric Benet asks her to record a song with him show the best acting. After all, Carey has sold a few more records than Eric Benet.)

Glitter wastes its only assets?Carey and Terrence Howard (playing a villainous record producer with excitement in his eyes). It also misses the opportunity to mythologize what Carey knows about showbiz politics, interracial confusion and the love of singing. Carey doesn't betray her audience the way Mark Wahlberg does fronting the bogus career mythology of Rock Star. Billie's self-written lament ("Dear God it is so tragic/And I never had the closure that I ultimately need") and her cat-hugging sensitivity might be maudlin, but they aren't dishonest. Nothing in Glitter is so insulting as Rock Star's lie about the democracy of stardom. The mother-child reunion stuff may be old as silent melodrama, but why withhold the reunion duet? If anyone connected with this film knew half as much about movies as sample-mad Carey does about recordmaking, Glitter might have sparkled.

Our Lady of The Assassins
Directed by Barbet Schroeder

Our Lady of the Assassins is Barbet Schroeder's end-of-the-world movie. It doesn't take terrorist attacks?or a war?to expose it as facile and insufficient. The disposition is bourgeois pessimism, expressed by Fernando (German Jaramillo), a middle-aged novelist who returns to his Medellin, Colombia, hometown, where he observes society's soul destroyed by the drug trade. (Nightly fireworks celebrate new coke shipments.) A soured Catholic, Fernando identifies with soullessness. At a gay brothel he picks up a teenager, Alexis (Anderson Ballesteros), who gives him a guided tour of the new Medellin where street boys carry guns, drugs and vendettas. Alexis is ready to kill anyone?even Fernando's neighbor, who makes too much noise. Fernando wearily challenges Alexis to "distinguish between thought and action. What separates them is called civilization."

Schroeder himself might consider distinguishing a critique of decadence from flaunting it. Our Lady is poised between satire and indulgence, causing some critics to mistake its cold view of brutality and dehumanized modern life as Buñuelian. But Schroeder (who uses Fernando as another of his debauched privileged protagonists?from Idi Amin Dada to Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune) is more like a self-pitying Buñuel. His alter egos see the world from a skewed perspective that allows them to enjoy the benefits of social decay while musing on its irritations. ("I need enemies so they can watch me eat.") Fernando scolds peasant women weeping for youngsters gunned down in the street by firing off his own litany of high-flown elitist disdain, yet Buñuel wouldn't have let him seem so superior. Posed opposite bound-and-tortured martyr statuary, Fernando is meant to represent modern, enlightened sorrow. His education and religious training sharpen his wit ("I'm Colombia's last grammarian!"), yet make him long for death. "It's whatever time you say," he tells Alexis, recognizing Youth's prerogative as Hell's new fashion.

"They love me in a hateful way," Alexis says of his previous johns, so Schroeder films Alexis and Fernando's first coupling as a mirror image of nearby erotic sculpture. There's no denying Schroeder has polished his poisoned vision?from the motorcyclist-as-death motif (as in Cocteau's Orpheus) to Alexis' noisy pastimes (tv, music and video games) indicting Western culture. Our Lady is slick with cool, nihilistic details. Fernando hates himself as much as he does the cruel, violent world. Even the boys he picks up?after Alexis comes Wilmar (Juan David Restrepo)?are such casual rogues that there's no difference between their disaffected killing and kissing. They take deprivation in stride?sexily?which goes to make Our Lady Schroeder's funniest, most adroit film since Barfly. Yet Schroeder never catches the balance of shock and remorse achieved in Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead.

Our Lady suggests Bringing Out the Dead by a nonbeliever. Fernando's despairing atheism keeps returning him to spiritual unease. A strung-out street boy provokes him to cry, "That kid's eyes! He looked at me from God's infamy!" Later, he confesses, "All these deaths prey on my mind." He regrets that a seminary "has become a mall" full of homeless people and drug addicts. And a church's motto Domus Dei Porto Cielo (The House of God, The Door of Heaven) evokes an apocalyptic nightmare of raining blood?an effect ruined by this film being yet another blurry digital video transfer. Fernando's disgust and anxiety also recall David Thewlis as Johnny doing his end-of-the-world rant in Mike Leigh's Naked. But unless you're a trendy malcontent (the kind of person who also fell for Amores Perros) Our Lady will, ultimately, seem whiny and morose.


Heads up for Bela Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies at Anthology Film Archives starting Oct. 10 (and a concurrent Tarr retrospective at MOMA). Yes, Tarr ranks with the big boys. No contemporary filmmakers make better use of long takes or slow, circling camera movements to prove the solidity of things, space, existence. In bleak Eastern Europe, a town is aroused by a stuffed whale carnival attraction. Tarr uses this premise as a tremendous metaphorical dare: man's relation to man (memorably shot by Gabor Medvigy and movingly scored by Mihaly Vig) rises to contemplate nature, God and the universe. Because it evokes both Jonah and Moby Dick, jokers will call it the Free Willy of art movies, but when you see it, you'll say that with respect.

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