Philip Kaufman's Poor Quills Takes on Sade; Joaquin Phoenix in The Yards

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Writer Richard Torres nailed Philip Kaufman, the director of Quills, as "the Zalman King of art filmmakers." That was a few years back, referring to Kaufman's spuriously "adult" features The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Henry & June. In Quills, a travesty biography of the last years the Marquis de Sade spent incarcerated at the Charenton insane asylum, Kaufman still seems to be the same old panderer. Despite critical acclaim, Kaufman's late sex films (his Tumescent Trilogy) are hardly different from The Red Shoe Diaries and 9 1/2 Weeks, the blatantly softcore hits Zalman King produced for an unpretentious market.

Dramatizing the Marquis de Sade's persecution (thus reversing Peter Weiss' celebrated play Marat/Sade) seems Kaufman's deliberate attempt at self-justification (prompted by Henry & June's highly publicized initiation of the NC-17 rating in 1990). Yet, in this post-sexual-revolution period, Kaufman's license hardly invites censure; it fits neatly into Hollywood's old vaudevillian tradition. Kaufman's recent flicks (including 1993's Rising Sun, which featured an elaborate tabletop rape/ravishment scene) reduced the appeal of movies to a certain facile eroticism?they're burlesque films for lazy intellectuals. Though Kaufman does not exactly present Sade the (monstrous) revolutionary as in 1969's X-rated American International film De Sade that starred Keir Dullea, he takes a more exploitable view: Quills conveniently posits Sade as a visionary forerunner of sexual progressives, another embattled artist threatened by political conservatism. That's a lunatic posture coming from an essentially antic filmmaker, and Quills is neither raunchy nor funny enough (like, say, Young Frankenstein) to make such presumption anything but self-important.

Some journalists have responded to Kaufman's nonserious tack by seriously overpraising him as an artist. This critical folly enshrines the essential capriciousness that has long prevented American movies from being sincere about intimate aspects of human experience; that has made them seem juvenile compared to non-American movies about sex. In 1988 Unbearable failed comparison to Rajko Grlic's contemporaneous, topical In the Jaws of Life; while Henry & June is shamed by the generational sexual experiments examined in Bertolucci's fine, underrated Stealing Beauty.

Essaying "European" themes like the 60s Czech Revolution in Unbearable and 30s louche Paris in Henry & June (or just being banally exotic even when dealing with "Orientalism" in Rising Sun), Kaufman at best makes modern Hollywood kitsch. Though he's only completed 10 films in nearly 40 years, he is the foremost exemplar of the too-American tendency to take nothing seriously besides his personal naivete. Kaufman's "innocent" sexual indulgence seems willfully imprudent. This would make him an ideal Sade biographer only if he were prepared to go all the way?past Zalman King?to arousal-plus-outrage. But Quills is tripped up by Kaufman's sophomoric moralizing; though brazen, he stays "safe"?and pious?portraying the Marquis de Sade as a champion of free speech. Perhaps this is the hypocritical way a Sade bio now gets green-lighted in Hollywood. Or maybe it's an unfortunate display of know-nothingness. Or worse?dishonesty.

Starting in 1794 as a horror movie set in postrevolutionary France, blood drips (just like the gag in the opening credits of American Psycho) from a guillotine into a soon-to-be-decapitated woman's mouth. Kaufman mixes humor and sexual humiliation?not with Sadean fervor or ingenuity but directionless, puerile abandon, a balance he can't sustain. That's because he's playing Hollywood's prestige-movie game, basically mixing Class (think Merchant-Ivory having a bad taste nightmare) with Crass (the same inauthenticity as old Hollywood period pieces where actors use British accents as if it gave distinction to obviously fake sets and costumes). In Quills, the Britishisms of Australian Geoffrey Rush as Sade, Michael Caine as his adversary Dr. Royer-Collard, Kate Winslet as the laundress who smuggles Sade's profane manuscripts to publishers, and even Joaquin Phoenix as the Abbe de Coulmier, caretaker of the Charenton asylum where Sade is housed, make no sense for 18th-century France. Yet Kaufman would have viewers derive pleasure from this ruse?not literal-mindedly, but kitschily, inconsistently and incoherently.

This is exactly the nonsense some critics mistook Josef Von Sternberg, the cinema's greatest erotic artist, as doing. Kaufman?a jokester?ignores the spiritual interest of Sternberg's Blonde Venus, Shanghai Express, Morocco, The Scarlet Empress and Shanghai Gesture, but that doesn't mean that his hipster approach is at all perceptive about human sexual secrets. His redemptive portrait of Sade contradicts hipster effrontery regarding sexual freedom. It seeks martyrdom instead of liberty or debate. In Just Watch!, a superb academic study of Blonde Venus, scholar Peter Baxter examined how Sternberg detailed the agonies of personal expression through pop cultural forms: "Sternberg's broadly inclusive vision of self and identity [was] at constant play with desire, and the narrow, conventional utterances that the Hollywood institution condoned." By restraining any such serious consideration of Sade's madness or philosophy?and lacking Sternberg's voluptuous eye and thematic rigor?Kaufman winds up with a film full of ersatz decadence. That's why Torres' aperçu was the wittiest, most apt thing ever said about Kaufman's erotic-artistic inadequacy. Kaufman's lost the ability to deflate his own pompous hard-on, which is what made The Right Stuff an admirable pop chronicle, and even his 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers a mostly nonsentimental but truly frightening sci-fi update.

Quills offers an untrustworthy mix of titillation and moralizing. Douglas Wright's script (from his own stage play) teases revolution but doesn't threaten it. What was disturbingly under the surface of Ken Russell's Dionysian bio-pic fantasies?that sexual excess might somehow go out of control and into your lap?is confined to smarmy subplots about Coulmier's temptation and Royer-Collard's cuckolding (a Dangerous Liaisons tribute). Even the ugliest, Grand Guignol travesties of Quills (the various tortures inflicted upon Sade!) are as contained and meretricious as the weird key-swapping party in The Grinch. One of Wright's many bad lines has villainous Royer-Collard's warn Sade, "You shall no longer spread your insidious gospel." Gospel is the whoppingly wrong word, though it exposes the game here that converts Sade's perverse philosophy to valiant creativity. Wright and Kaufman treat Sade's writings as impish whimsies, but then misrepresent the effects of pornography on mind, body and society by showing cliches of peasant bawdiness?or end-of-the-world pandemonium. The sound effects go from Playboy Channel heavy-breathing to carefully composed Hammer film crescendos of fake screams?aural propaganda.

Wright has Sade pronounce, "We eat, shit, fuck, kill, die. These are the eternal verities." That sounds like farce (and would be if the director had the right stuff) yet it seems Kaufman hasn't read enough Camille Paglia to put Sade's profanities in proportion. When Sade, dressed in a dingy suit bearing words scrawled in his own blood, dances atop a banquet table to rouse the asylum's inmates, it recalls the strained anarchy of Treat Williams in Milos Forman's Hair; the image has a smug capriciousness. What it doesn't have is the audacity and integrity of the logorrheic imagery in Peter Greenaway's more credibly Sadean The Pillow Book. Where Greenaway, Ken Russell or Roman Polanski might be insinuating or provocative, Kaufman is obvious, smutty. Superficially turned on by Sade's question, "Who doesn't dream of indulging every spasm of lust?" Kaufman is disingenuous about Sade's misanthropy and savagery while venting nothing more than Beverly Hills or Marin County libertinage?self-importance he infers from Sade's writings. (Quills might have been directed by the curious-yet-squeamish Tom Cruise character in Eyes Wide Shut.)

For porn-savvy audiences, Quills will seem the last gasp of 60s liberalism?a 90s libertarian debauch. Kaufman wants to refute Royer-Collard's statement, "Idealism is youth's final luxury, but this film represents the final luxury of unengaged American filmmaking. (I hope.) Compare Quills to the sexual/social challenge of Mystikal's "Shake Ya Ass," Sisqo's "The Thong Song" or even TLC's "No Scrubs" and you see how Kaufman sits out America's current moral dilemmas. He hides behind sexual kitsch, casting the very modern Joaquin Phoenix for what Gus Van Sant first saw in him?a tendency for debauchery. Kaufman exploits Phoenix's carnal ambiguity?the dark, cloudy eyes and that odd, expressive backbone matching his harelip?as the embodiment of sexual inhibition. It's uncertain if Phoenix's Abbe is meant to be gay or what (he lusts for Sade and the laundress), but Kaufman's little lesson in repression turns him into a necrophilic Renfield. Ingmar Bergman's young curate in Smiles of a Summer Night didn't require a phony transgressive dream sequence but Kaufman, through Sade, panders to Hollywood convention in the most trite manner. Before the Abbe's corpse-sex, Kaufman tempts us with a shot showing Winslet half-nude in the background while Phoenix sits foreground open-shirted, a lock of hair falling in his face. It's an unlikely proximity for these two characters yet as cannily suggestive as old paperback cover art.

Clearly Kaufman has confused Sade's pornographic indignities with Henry Miller?that's like confusing Anais Nin with Madonna (what's next on Kaufman's menu, Justify My Love, The Miniseries?). This simplification, ignoring the essence of Sade's blasphemous Philosophy in the Bedroom, stands as a classic instance of Hollywood prevarication?a preference for licentious sentimentality. Anyone impressed by Kaufman's LaButean bad idea (falling for Wright/Sade's alibi, "I didn't create this world, I only record it") should see how Leos Carax dealt with the same creative dilemma more richly in Pola X. But then that's precisely the kind of serious European art Quills' kitsch seeks to displace. Pursuing what a critic once called "the distilled essence of dirty thoughts," Kaufman fails an authentic probe of history or eroticism.


The Yards directed by James Gray

As Willie Gutierrez in The Yards, Joaquin Phoenix becomes the frontrunner for this year's supporting actor prizes. Willie has a genuine modern crisis trying to survive and assimilate in a mean world. He joins the criminal substrata of the MTA, partaking of New York's casual ethnic corruption. The Irish and Italian pact with municipal privilege that blacks and Latinos envy is the brass ring that Willie thoughtlessly grasps. And to prove it, he falls in love with a daughter of low-privilege, Erica Stoltz (Charlize Theron), a proletarian youth as dark-browed and beautifully damned as himself.

Two problems with all this: first, Phoenix doesn't code Latino and so he and director James Gray completely miss the ethnic paradox of passing (not mentioned on the screen since Hangin' with the Homeboys). Phoenix's charisma steals the movie from lead actor Mark Wahlberg, but when he doesn't make Willie's suffering primal, The Yards cannot distinguish its mundane view of New York corruption. (Though not as crazy as Andy Garcia playing an Irish cop in Night Falls on Manhattan, it's slightly, definitely off?like Jeffrey Wright's spectacularly mistaken Dominican bad guy in Shaft.)

Second problem: instead of a fresh understanding?an exposé?of bureaucratic racism, Gray and his cinematographer, the talented Harris Savides, fall back on imitating the dark planes and overhead illumination of Gordon Willis' work in The Godfather. As soon as The Godfather is evoked, The Yards is diminished. It becomes a series of stylized visual and dramatic cliches. Even good actors like Phoenix, Theron, Ellen Burstyn, Faye Dunaway, James Caan, a credible Mark Wahlberg?and a surprising Steve Lawrence?wind up doing Corleone postures. And in the final, grief-ridden tableau, Gray doesn't sustain the graceful movements as Coppola did, but cuts and mars the composition's emotional integrity. Few critics have noticed Gray and Savides' audacious ripoff; instead, they recall On the Waterfront, a less active (plot-based) influence. It's Godfather mania (postmodern kitsch) that keeps Gray and Savides from going deeper into the urban corruption that The Yards depicts, the sorrow Joaquin Phoenix is primed to display. They went for color- and skin-coordinated melodrama. As a result, this well-meaning drama became an ersatz tragedy.

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