An Important Movie You MayNever See We live in a timewhen independent cinema means midlevel studio pictures those studios can nolonger be bothered to make; postmodern genre films that steal from other postmoderngenre films; films about posers and street hoods and poser street hoods; filmsabout people who just graduated from college and have to get a job and liveand love in the real world and can't figure out why nobody else feels like listeningto them bitch and whine about how smart and sensitive and misunderstood theyare. We live in a time of so-called independent films about guys who reallywant to make a film but can't decide what to make a film about, then solve theirdilemma by making a film about a guy who can't decide on a topic for his nextfilm. (This is known as sensitivity, and it's enough to get you noticed.) Welive in a time when rookie filmmakers (most of them young and white, from privilegedbackgrounds) want to make films because making films is cool, not because theyfeel unique feelings and desperately want to make us feel something, too. Itis a time of calling-card films, film-school films, films that have much todo with other movies, little to do with life and no interest in examining howone connects with and sometimes corrupts the other. Into this ossified and increasinglytrivial rich kids' medium comes a movie with integrity and guts-one that usesgenre conventions to say something meaningful about the world we live in rightnow. That film is Pups, the second feature by the one-named Britishwriter-director Ash. It's a film whose timing was either exquisite or horrible,depending on whom you ask-a film about two contemporary suburban white kidsfrom perfectly ordinary homes who, through a combination of impulse and neglect,come into possession of a handgun, then make the life-changing mistake of bringingthat handgun into a community bank. Am I right about this movie'sexcellence, or am I just blowing smoke? I really wish you could judge for yourself,but for now, that's not possible. Pups has no distributor. The film had a screeningApril 18 at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival and was well receivedby critics and industry types who attended. But two days later, Dylan Kleboldand Eric Harris did their Terminator number at Columbine High. Politicians'subsequent soapboxing about Hollywood violence ensured that the same distributorswho called Ash 24 hours after the screening to ask about buying Pupssuddenly got cold feet. Shocking, eh? Superficially, Pupsplays like a cross between Dog Day Afternoon and the neglected 1979 cultclassic Over The Edge, with a world-weary supporting performance by BurtReynolds as the hostage negotiator that's nearly as fine as his work in BoogieNights. But Ash's movie is much more than that. It's a scathingly relevantfilm that dresses itself in formulaic thriller trappings in order to tell usnecessary things about America's culture of entertainment, celebrity worshipand violence, and how that culture infects us in ways we cannot begin to fathom.It's the movie Natural Born Killers promised to be, but couldn't be becauseOliver Stone was too in love with film stock and MTV and his own machismo tostand back from the material and make it moral as well as exciting. The junior-high boy andgirl who bring the gun into the bank and provoke the hostage situation-loquaciousasthmatic Stevie (Cameron Van Hoy) and his erstwhile girlfriend, skinny-leggedtomboy Rocky (Mischa Barton)-are basically decent kids. But they are also thesum total of the corrupt messages they have absorbed: Guns are Cool, ActionMovies Rock, Being on tv is an End Unto Itself, Everybody Loves You If You'reFamous. (Except for Ken Finkleman's 1998 Canadian tv series More Tears,about the venality of tv journalism, no recent pop drama has done a better jobof capturing the hall-of-mirrors aspect of life in the age of 24-hour news.In one terrific scene, Stevie looks at a tv in the bank and sees a live image,taken by a cameraman shooting through the front window, of Stevie watching himselfon tv in the bank.) These received messages, along with the easy availabilityof firearms and the cluelessness of some parents, make it not just possiblebut inevitable that kids like Stevie and Rocky would pit themselves againstthe rest of society for no good reason. Back to the distributionsituation, or lack thereof. Here's what went down: One day after the April 18screening, Columbia, Warner Bros., Gramercy and the Samuel Goldwyn Co. all wantedto talk to Ash. As of April 20, the dayof the Columbine killings, no one would touch Pups. Ostensibly the distributorswanted to wait to see how critics and festival audiences responded before haulingout their checkbooks. But the truth is they wanted to wait until the Hollywood-is-evilmovement collapsed, or at least took a breather. Three months later, theguns-and-pop-culture debate is still raging. Which means you can't see the mostdisturbing and personal low-budget movie of 1999-and, I'm willing to wager justhalfway through the year, the only American movie that tells the truth aboutguns, youth, the media and the movies. The powers that be have decided the politicalclimate is too sensitive. It's not the right time. But is there ever a wrongtime for the truth? Unlike many satires, Pupsdoesn't give its targets the escape hatch of ambiguity. The kids aren't monsters,but certain social forces definitely bear responsibility for how they turnedout; Ash knows what those forces are and makes sure you do, too. Stevie andRocky know how to behave in hostage situations because they've watched hostagesituations on the news and in Hollywood movies, and they're too young and uneducatedto understand how those media can reshape real tragedies into thrilling popmyths. (The classic Sidney Lumet film Dog Day Afternoon is mentionedby name and referenced in deed, and when Stevie threatens his adult hostageswith his mom's pistol, he holds it sideways like a showboating gangsta in abad 'hood picture and barks four- and 12-letter words to let people know he'sserious.) Ash isn't saying, "Hollywood action movies are evil" orthat "tv news is amoral" or "There are too many guns in America."He's saying Hollywood, the media and the gun industry bear some responsibilityfor the fate of kids like Stevie and Rocky and Klebold and Harris-and that ifthe culprits invoke the First or Second Amendments as a shield against theircritics, they're self-deluding liars. Pups is personal.You can tell it wasn't made as a calling card (though Ash says that in the monthssince the Independent Film Festival screening, he's gotten a couple of callsfrom studio execs who want him to direct big budget action pictures-executiveswho apparently either haven't seen Pups or else were too stupid to figureout that the film indicts them for irresponsibility, along with the crisis-crazynews media, the gun lobby and America's diehard cowboy culture). The film is not a masterpiece.Few movies are. Ash is an unabashed propagandist, and it shows; he's also sentimentalabout the innocence of children, and this shows as well. There are misjudgedmoments, bits of rhetoric that make you cringe or roll your eyes, indulgencesand blind alleys and moments of regrettable theatrical excess. But these faultsare partly traceable to the film's quick gestation period: Ash thought up thestory after the Jonesboro shootings in 1998 and wrote and directed the moviebetween October and December to satisfy the impulsive whims of Japanese investors. And in any case, Pups'missteps pale in comparison to its rare virtues-fluidity, anger, imagination,improvisation, honesty. It's shot mostly with a Steadicam, either in long takesor in staccato-cut sequences that suggest the editor was having a seizure, andthe ambient sound and sparing use of music create an aura of genuine dread.At the risk of trivializing the film's antiviolence message, I'll paraphrasePauline Kael on Salvador and say that Ash makes movies as if someoneput a gun to his head and yelled, "Go!" and didn't take it away untilhe finished. Ash's first feature, Bang-abouta sexually mistreated Los Angeles actress who impersonates an L.A. cop for aday, then discovers to her amazement that she really gets off on having a badgeand a gun-had a similarly ragged yet focused kind of energy, a guerrilla filmmakingvibe. In some scenes, you could hear the buzz of offscreen LAPD helicoptersharassing the filmmakers for shooting in Los Angeles without a government permit.One could imagine Ash writing the screenplay in spraypaint on a warehouse wall.Like a punk cousin of Election director Alexander Payne-or maybe Stonewith common sense-this writer-director reconfigures political issues as melodrama,packs the result into tight little storytelling concepts and shakes the resultuntil it blows up in our faces. In a time when most moviessay nothing and mean less than nothing, Pups plants both its sneakeredfeet firmly on the pavement, looks us in the eye and tells the truth, and doesit in a suspenseful, entertaining and-dare I say it?-commercial way. Does anymajor distributor in America have the balls to pick up this movie and make sureit gets seen by the large popular audience it so richly deserves? Framed May-December. Hal Ashby'sHarold and Maude, starring Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon, will screen at FilmForum July 23-29. Aficionados of the mordant and sweet are advised to checkit out-especially if you've never seen it with an audience. Slow fuse. I recently hadthe pleasure of watching The Big Lebowski and Starman within 24hours on cable, then seeing Arlington Road. The juxtaposition of thesethree roles underlined once again that Jeff Bridges is one of the very bestactors we have. Arlington Road is ludicrous, as serious and probing alook at domestic terrorism as Three Days Of The Condor was a seriousand probing look at the military-industrial complex. But inside the nonsenseis a compelling lead performance by Bridges, as a widowed professor at the endof his rope, that's as detailed and believable as any you're going to see anywhere.This achievement is especially remarkable considering what nonsense the filmmakersask him to put up with in the name of melodrama. Like other versatile leadingmen who also happen to be handsome-I include Nick Nolte, Denzel Washington andTom Cruise in this category-Bridges will probably never in his lifetime receivethe kind of acclaim visited on the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, SeanPenn and Nicolas Cage, who are certainly gifted but also have been known toact in a way that announces to the audience, "Look at me, folks, I'm acting-ain'tI intense?" Certain types of leading men-leading men like Bridges-do exactlywhat is required to suit the material, no more and no less. They make the storymore believable by finding exactly the correct pace, energy level and emotionalpitch, and they never step outside the story to force you to acknowledge theirefforts; they never let you catch them acting.
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