Playing by Heart

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Playingby Heart directed byWillard Carroll
Moviesthat weave together three, four, five or more separate stories: We now see asprinkling of these oddities every year. They're generally independentproductions, and usually melodramas, a form that allows for enough tonal variationthat the films are seldom mistaken for each other. Altman's Short Cutsis perhaps the best-known of the last half-decade, and whether or not you countthat film an artistic success (I don't), you have to allow that it'smainly the distinctiveness of Altman's authorial voice that weighs againstthe chief downside of what I hereby dub the loose-leaf drama?byand large, they simply don't work.
The latest one of thesecapacious gambles, Willard Carroll's Playing by Heart?a titlethat might at least have been reserved for a mediocre film that involves music?testifiesyet to the built-in lack of focus that is this form's main frustration.Yet it also reminds us of one reason the form refuses to go away: Melodramahas an unquenchable appeal, but American movies no longer know how to deal comfortablywith ordinary characters in melodramatic stories, partly, perhaps, because asingle, standard-issue melodrama seems too thin, too common, too old hat tograb anyone's attention. Trying to overcome that by converting one run-of-the-millstory into many?presto! voila!?may be a dumb solution, butat least you see where the impulse comes from. And if you're basicallyon the side of melodrama, always hoping to see it persuasively resuscitated,as I am, you can forgive a large measure of that dumbness. In the case of Playingby Heart, you're also tempted to forgive a degree of softheadednesssince the setting?nay, the omnipresent, enveloping weltschmerz?isL.A. Intersplicing six tales that for much of the movie appear to have no connection,Carroll's script puts an unsurprising emphasis on relationships and theconundrums that they involve. In story one (the ordering is mine), a stiff,emotionally straitjacketed theater director named Meredith (Gillian Anderson)meets a cool, laidback Mr. Right (Jon Stewart) but can't relax her defensesenough to let him tickle her fancy. Will he persist against her stony rejections,or allow her to perish within her fortress of solitude? (Whatever the outcome,give the script credit for a few felicities. These characters meet-cute whenshe turns over a library bookcase full of periodicals. He notes that she shouldbe okay since she landed on a copy of George?"lots of padding.") Story two also involvessomeone who's romantically ready pursuing someone who's definitelynot, but here the characters are in their 20s and the sexes are reversed. Joan(Angelina Jolie) meets Keenan (Ryan Phillippe), a sullen, blue-haired punkoid,in a dance club; she's ready to tango, but he's hostage to a deep,dark secret that she'll not only have to discover but exorcise to makehim boyfriend material. Secrets figure into other tales, too. In story three,Sean Connery and Gena Rowlands are a long-married couple, creators of a successful cooking show, whose picture-book life gets torpedoed by an undisclosed illness.In story four, Madeleine Stowe and Anthony Edwards are carrying on a supposedlyjust-for-sex affair that has to be hidden from the world, but that's mostlythreatened by the fact that one of them has more invested in it emotionallythan the other. Story five, the movie'scryptic wild card, has Dennis Quaid as a tv-executive type who keeps showingup sloshed in bars and restaurants, giving strangers fervent sob stories abouthis past, but altering these accounts radically every time we see him. And storysix features Ellen Burstyn as an uptight mom whose son (Jay Mohr), dying ofAIDS in a hospital, proposes that they play a game and tell each other the truthabout their lives, for once. She surprises him by instantly admitting that shenever loved his dad, which spurs both mom and son toward other revelations andthe onset of an understanding that's sad only in that it comes so late. Like almost every playletit contains, Playing by Heart itself has a secret, a last-reel trumpcard that "explains" what connects the six tales. No, it's notthat "all the characters belong to Alcoholics Anonymous," or "allthe actors have had dinner with Harvey Weinstein." Miramax has asked thatwe reviewers not give away this narrative twist, and I'll respect thatrequest even if doing so tends to suggest that the secret is really juicy, whichit isn't, or that its revelation totally compensates for the fact thatwe've spent the whole movie wondering, "Why are we watching thesesix sets of people and not six, five or eight others?" It doesn't. The secret that Miramaxwas previously famous for urging critics to keep, that of The Crying Game,actually explains lots that happens prior to its appearance in Neil Jordan'sastute psychological drama. The one in Playing by Heart explains nothing;it's merely a gimmick to tie up the narrative threads while providing abit of last-minute uplift and a glancing impression of thematic coherence. Infact, though, it mainly serves to reveal the random, overstuffed, uneven natureof the film that precedes it. Walking out, you realize how useless the EllenBurstyn AIDS episode is to the whole, followed closely by the Madeleine Stowe-AnthonyEdwards segment. So you start to think: Take those two stories out and theremight've been room to do something really interesting with the other four,although the Gillian Anderson and the Dennis Quaid sections already seem likeone-idea conceits stretched as far as they can be...etc. But you can't musethis way for long, because it simply leads you into a frenzy of close inspectionthat Playing by Heart can't withstand. It is a melodrama, afterall, one saddled with a concept and structure that won't allow it to besatisfying except intermittently, in flashes and fragments. There are some ofthose, supplied more by the actors and the dramatic premises than by any brilliancein the mounting: Connery and Rowlands bring the grace of old pros to a bittersweetaccount of age's encroachment; Quaid manages a convincing meshing of devilryand desperation; and although Jolie overacts, she and Phillippe evoke the needinessand confusion of young lovers battling formidable odds, in the tale that'sthe most charged and fully developed of the six. Still, six. Why thatmany? The main angle from which most loose-leaf dramas make sense, if you thinkof it, is what can be called the video-box rationale. This is what the producersees: Even if the movie tanks at the box office, if it doesn't cost too much it can turn a tidy profit on video because of all the star names on thebox. "Look, dear?Sean Connery, Gillian Anderson, Dennis Quaid, allthese others, and we've never even heard of this one," marvelsthe happy video renter, not stopping to wonder why they've neverheard of it.
Dutch Harbor directed by Braden King and LauraMoya
DutchHarbor: Where the Sea Breaks Its Back, a nonfictionfeature that will play Tonic's Monday Night Film Series on Feb. 1, is awonderfully spare and evocative portrait of a fishing town perched on the frigidnorthern edge of the U.S., on an island called Unalaska halfway down the Aleutianarchipelago in the Bering Strait. Shot in sharp, contrasty 16-mm black and white, the film casts a potent spell by adroitly spanning two sorts of objectives:It's half meditative tone poem about a place of wild and fearsome beauty,half matter-of-fact document about the lives and feelings of the people whoinhabit this wintry American outpost.
The film originated in Chicago,where King is a partner in a recording studio and record label called TruckstopMedia, and its approach seems much influenced by a minimalist musical esthetic.In fact, though next Monday's showing will mark its first New York appearance,Dutch Harbor toured Europe last year with live, mostly improvised accompanimentby the Boxhead Ensemble, which performs the soundtrack in the film, composedby Michael Krassner. A CD derived from the European live performances, TheLast Place to Go, has been released. What makes the film so pleasingis that it sticks to a modest but very astute and particular vision withouttrying to impress the viewer or wedge its subject into a prefab agenda. At first,it tosses out a minimum of orienting facts but mainly stands back and gazesfixedly at Unalaska's wide and daunting vistas, its slashing seas and enormousswaths of ice and sky. You look at all this and wonder why independent, low-budgetfilmmakers don't make more of the countless epics provided by the American landscape. Certainly, this corner of Alaska?when have you ever seen a filmabout Alaska, how it looks and feels??is strange and wondrous enough tobe worth staring at for hours on end. Who needs a story? The communal story thatDutch Harbor eventually tells, though, neatly fits its lyrically observant,non-rhetorical outlook. As the film shifts to views of the town of Dutch Harbor,its fishing vessels and the insides of its enormous seafood processing plants, we hear the voices of townspeople whose faces we never see (this separationof image and sound deftly reinforces the reflective mood): In flat, very contemporary-Americantones, they relate little details of their lives and muse on the up-and-down fortunes of a community that was a boomtown a few years back but has now subsidedtoward a kind of muted normalcy, with an aftermath of shuttered businesses anda slowly declining population. In a place defined by starknatural contrasts, one human contrast stands out: People wryly describe thenumbing, factory-like monotony of working in the seafood plants, yet they talkof Unalaska itself as the last remnant of America's untamed frontier, theonly remaining shred of the Wild West. Alas, some also lament, it, too, is going,falling victim to America's penchant for civilizing and homogenizing allits possessions. Perhaps it is, you think, but this landscape has somethingabout it that looks forever alien and untamable, an obduracy that belongs tothe most elemental of wildernesses. With its W.P.A.-meets-alt.rock sensibility,Dutch Harbor provides that lingering frontier with an elegy that'shard-bitten and haunting.
Dutch Harbor,Mon., Feb. 1, 9 p.m., at Tonic, 107 Norfolk St., (betw. Delancey & RivingtonSts.), 358-7503.

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