Terminal Bar; Punch-Drunk Love

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Terminal Bar
Directed by Stefan Nadelman
Punch-Drunk Love
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

"I'm trying to tell people what's happening. If you don't put it down on paper nobody knows." That's an ironic commentary for Terminal Bar, the finest documentary you're likely to see this year. Showing Oct. 17 as part of Resfest, the digital film festival at the New School, Terminal Bar justifies the digital video medium as a means of genuine storytelling and fact-finding-not simply a Hollywood shortcut.

As clientele changed (along with the neighborhood), Terminal attracted new bruisers, new ethnicities, new desperados. "You wanna stay in business? If it's gay, it's gay. You go with the flow," Sheldon reasoned. Like an update of O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, Terminal Bar catalogs a panoply of lost hopes. Many of Sheldon's patrons were "big husky black men. They have a few drinks, they all become sissies." That's not hostility, but a reality even O'Neill left out-a trenchant view of people who have trouble making it in society looking for respite, hiding from themselves, running from indifference.

Care describes Sheldon's portraits-they're not demeaning candid shots. The act of numbering these must have moved him just as the evidence of numbered men-an inventory of desperation-takes a viewer's breath away. This census of faces creates a montage effect as good as Godard's Histoires du Cinema. Nadelman proves adept at video composition. No matter how fancy his editing, Terminal Bar's portraits remain haunting. It may not get support from the Nan Goldin-Larry Clark hipperati simply because you can't fantasize about these photos, pitying or envying decadence. Each person who looked into Sheldon's camera also looks right at you. They look into that part of every New Yorker who, daily, fends off the nightmare of failure, dereliction and anonymity. Time Square's Disneyfication has not built over this fear; there is still dirt in the folds and creases of the fancy new alteration. But Terminal Bar gives lost people an identity viewers can share. Call it punch-drunk humanism. As Sheldon remarks, "When one person's lying in the street, everybody's lying in the street."


"He Needs Me," the Nilsson song Shelley Duvall sang as Olive Oyl in Robert Altman's 1980 Popeye, bursts in on the Adam Sandler-Emily Watson romance in Punch-Drunk Love. Duvall's wistful yet awkward rendition, illustrating the hard work of romance, accompanies the moment Sandler and Watson warm up to each other. It comments on their grouch-meets-passion-flower matchup as if they were indeed Popeye and Olive. But Punch-Drunk Love's director, Paul Thomas Anderson, keeps the song on the soundtrack-several Dolby levels louder than ambient sound-through even the next several scenes. Incongruous and self-conscious, Olive's aria is there for its own sweet sake, and it's the first stroke of genius Anderson has ever come up with.

Anderson always attempts strokes of genius, but except for Mark Wahlberg's moment of awareness scored to "Jessie's Girl" in Boogie Nights, he's always struck out. Punch-Drunk Love, obviously an attempt at American film poetry-combining love story and character study on a surrealist plane with vibrant colors, paranoid sound and shock edits-is, in the end, merely a watchable piece of cinematic doggerel. Its story of Sandler's lonely young malcontent, Barry Egan, seeking love feels phony-mannered, whereas poetry must be concise: real in incident, language, imagery and texture, like we know from the French New Wave, Altman's California Split or Kansas City, even (that's right) Popeye. Altman's bizarre/brilliant musical stylized American society to its roots, while poignantly perceiving every character's idiosyncratic effort to enter or survive community. But Punch-Drunk Love overemphasizes the strangeness of Barry Egan's life (it comes apart when the lonely bachelor places a call to a pernicious sex-phone racket). The absurdist documentation of Barry's workday in a warehouse, the loony homeyness of a dinner with his seven sisters and the freak occurrences he witnesses on the street feel more like affectations than Altman's intensely observed reality and intimately understood human nature.

Anderson's yearning to be poetic-to be Altman-matches his generation of filmgoers' desire to have their own film poet, expressing post-boomer dislocation. But though this culturally naive desire overrides any story or experience Anderson tries to convey, he's just not It. Every Altman allusion in Boogie Nights and Magnolia laboriously spelled out how inferior Anderson is-especially to Altman's great protege Alan Rudolph, a true movie poet whose symbols and philosophical tangents are buoyant and terse. (Wonderful Emily Watson seems cast as a cipher unless you intuit Anderson's tribute to her groundbreaking characterization in Alan Rudolph's Trixie.) Thankfully the 90-minute Punch-Drunk Love limits Anderson's usually lengthy self-indulgence, but the problem is he's still the dummkopf whose idea of a poetic flourish, in Magnolia, was to climax a quotidian melodrama with an unexplained plague of frogs. Such pretense always ruins poetry.

Sampling Popeye's "He Needs Me" flatters the specialized taste of Anderson's poetry-hungry young cult. (They recognize this film as a nerd's passion play.) Admittedly that's a healthier taste than the sadism David Fincher and Quentin Tarantino appeal to. It points viewers toward accepting eccentric human need and compassion, almost like Terminal Bar. But Punch- Drunk Love is gimmicked-up, as if Barry's simple desire to connect isn't interesting in itself. (A great line on Bryan Ferry's new album describes "a girl who's working in a factory/Spends all her time there/Thinking what she want to be/She's got no boyfriend/She's got no window/She's such a lonely heart/It's tearing me apart.") Anderson, however, doesn't feel for his protagonist Barry; he shows off for him.

That crucial moment when Barry makes his doomed sex call is staged with an elaborate, superfluous camera move-panning left to an empty chair and a bottle of Windex on a table, even though we already know Barry's alone. Poetry must be perfect, not strained, but Anderson's admirers think recognizing his strain (the running shadows, the lit-up phone booth or the interstitial rainbow motif repeated in the story's color scheme) is proof of his artistry. Anderson neglects what's essential, burdening Sandler's inexperience as a character actor. Sandler's not a good physical comedian like Jim Carrey, but his schlubby movements are true to Barry's type. And that whiny voice-a variation on Jerry Lewis' doofus-evokes sympathy from the common way he swallows his words, an Everynerd shyness. However, this performance implodes what people enjoy in Sandler; it's not an expansion of his image, but a diminishment. He tries hard, and flushes red to show the pent-up anger comics usually suppress, but to call this a great performance is a form of pretending. (Paul Giamatti already aced a similar characterization in the unfairly maligned Duets as an unhappy man who, like Barry, is obsessed with business protocol.) It's intriguing to see Barry always sidle through doorways, slipping through culture, past ethnic identity. But when Anderson adds revenge scenes to Barry's white male predicament, the Popeye-esque whimsy comes dangerously close to the solipsism of Fight Club without being any more illuminating. Maybe this time Anderson should have imitated Altman's The Long Goodbye.

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