The General's Daughter
directed by Simon West Travolta Pigs Out As an indicator of the poisonous,predatory pathology that currently governs Hollywood, Simon West's The General'sDaughter runs a close second to Joel Schumacher's 8mm in 1999's MostLoathsome Movie of the Year sweepstakes. Do I inadvertently make it sound noteworthyand appealingly appalling, at a time when the major studios are so remote fromany superlative? I hope not, because this bloated John Travolta vehicleis also a bloody bore, proof that the least sexy byproduct of artistic and moralcollapse is sheer, drooling, fork-in-your-own-eyeball incompetence. As a type, West's film sharescertain elements with Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs, movieswhose technical and esthetic brilliance allowed them to be seen as exceptionsto (and alas, justifications for) a rule that made the rapacious brutalizationof women a narrative norm and, increasingly, a social archetype. The film'stitle character is a very attractive and spirited young woman who, only minutesafter we begin to assume that she'll be Travolta's romantic interest, is foundnude and bloody, spread-eagled on military training turf after having been lavishlytortured, raped and murdered. (So much for movie romance at the millennium,when Hollywood has the savoir faire of de Sade.) The rest of the tale nominallyconcerns the hunt for her killer, but it might more accurately be seen as alip-smackingly ghoulish meditation on her corpse and how it got that way: Wenot only see the lethal rape over and over, but also an earlier one when theupshot wasn't death but merely profound degradation and piteous mental breakdown. As with 8mm, themost shocking thing about all this is how unshocking it feels as it rolls offthe screen. We've seen the basic horrors so often that they've become humdrumitems in our mental attics; what used to be extraordinarily unsettling now feelsthat way only when we stop to reflect on how desensitized to images of humansuffering it has left us. In this case, though, the effect isn't nearly so outrageousor offensive as it is dreadfully depressing. How did movies get this bad? Letus distinguish, first, the two essential sorts of bad represented here. There'sthe bad that means inhuman and antihuman, avid for the quasi-pornographic defilementof vulnerable bodies and souls; for this, explanation must be sought in thetoxic confluence of several spiritual and social malaises. Then there's thebad that denotes the aforementioned's garish, shoddy and ham fisted execution;here the reasons are inevitably more mundane and close at hand. Take, for example,the financial angle. In the "Money &Business" section of the June 13 New York Times, an article titled"Revenge of the Bean Counters" detailed the economic crunch Hollywoodcurrently finds itself in. Granted, alarms over the skyward spiraling of productioncosts have been a recurrent attraction in the movie press for decades, sincebudgetary extravagance was measured in millions rather than in hundreds thereof.But the Times is not wrong that, with once-powerful talent agencies nowin a reduced position of influence, "the studios are regaining the upperhand, and their main weapon is supply and demand. Under strict orders from theircorporate owners to pay more heed to the bottom line, studios are making fewerfilms, forcing the people who work in the industry to carve up a smaller pie."Correction: forcing some of the people in the industry to accept smallerslices. There's the rub. Everywhere, the costs of making movies are ballooningand menacing profits, so studio beancounters are cutting corners as ruthlesslyas they can. Except in one area, an area that so far remains effectively inviolable:the salaries of top stars. And in many cases the economic impact of one of theindustry's top draws isn't limited to the landfill in his pay envelope. You may be tempted to thinkthat I'm making up the following, but I swear it's true. The credits of TheGeneral's Daughter include people occupying the following positions: Mr.Travolta's Make-up, Mr. Travolta's Hair Stylist, Mr. Travolta's Costumer, ExecutiveAssistant to Mr. Travolta, Production Assistant to Mr. Travolta, Assistant toMr. Travolta, Mr. Travolta's Trainer, and Craft Service for Mr. Travolta. (Thelatter office involves providing food and snacks for Mr. T. Given Travolta'schipmunk cheeks and waddling girth, his craft service guy evidently got farmore of a workout than his trainer.) Now, I want to underscore that I've beena Travolta fan since his tv days, and remain so today. No one welcomed hisPulp Fictionresurrection more gleefully than I. I've never razzed him aboutScientology, nor from most standpoints do I deplore his current $20 millionasking price. In fact, I don't know that I've ever said a discouraging wordabout Travolta or his career, and today I just have one such word, in lightof those names in the credits: Oink. It is a bit piggish, isit not, to foist a flotilla of one's personal flunkies and attendants on a productionthat otherwise is undernourished due in large part to one's perhaps deservedbut inarguably gargantuan salary. Because by all indications that's exactlythe problem with The General's Daughter. It's a prime example of whathappens when a $65 million movie tries to be a $50 million movie (these figuresare guestimates, but reasonable ones, I think) and the star's $20 million salaryand the various perks demanded by his ego can't be touched: Everything elsesuffers. It's simple arithmetic,and you can see the dreary bottom line in the first five minutes of The General'sDaughter. The movie opens with a credits sequence during which we see thedoings around a Southern Army base, climaxing with the trumpeted arrival ofand a brief speech by the title's eponymous general (James Cromwell). What'swrong with this very standard introductory scene? Well, lots. The photographyand lighting (by Peter Menzies Jr.) look cheap and shoddy. Ditto the editing and production design (Glen Scantlebury and Dennis Washington, respectively).Most tellingly of all, the one element here that is good, the score,is good in a particular way: Very imaginative but notably unsuited to what'shappening on screen, it comes off as if composer Carter Burwell, having watchedthe whole movie, figured, "This is such irremediable crap, I'll just pleasemyself by writing whatever amuses me." Who could blame him? Ifthe producers had been going for real top-dollar quality, they would have engageda director really gifted in such genre pictures, someone like The Fugitive'sAndrew Davis, and let him surround himself with the best collaborators moneycould buy. Instead, they hired Con Air's West, another of those visionlessBrits schooled in tv commercials who knows as little about handling actors ashe does about cinematic style. The General's Daughter thus is horriblydirected, obvious, vulgar and filled with ho-hum work by better-than-that performers. Money was spent, no doubt,on the services of veteran scripter William Goldman, who perhaps supplied thesix or eight swatches of verbal wit that adorn the film's boilerplate screenplay,co-credited to Christopher Bertolini and based on what would seem to be a particularlytrashy airport novel by Nelson DeMille. No amount of Goldmanesque badinage,though, can paper over the dull ugliness in which this film, like too many othersin its depleted genre currently, trades and abounds. As 8mm rammed home,Hollywood now seems incapable of thinking "thriller" without automaticallyjumping to "s&m" and, especially, "torture and sickeningsexual abuse of women." Those are the first elements nailed in place here.Travolta is a military investigator assigned to crack a crime at a Georgia Armybase when a more heinous offense is committed: The commanding general's daughter,herself an officer on the base (Leslie Stefanson), is found raped, mutilatedand stone-cold dead. The investigation that follows turns up evidence of hersecret life in s&m (of course) as well as a slew of suspects played by thelikes of James Woods, Timothy Hutton and Clarence Williams III. You're already thinking,"Daddy did it," I know, but the movie's gist is actually worse thanany literal reading of that suspicion. The general's daughter, we learn, yearsbefore was horribly raped by fellow soldiers at West Point (which naturallyoccasions more gruesome rape footage in the form of flashbacks) and Daddy, ratherthan forcing an investigation that would bring the culprits to justice, protectedhis own job security and political ambitions by telling her to "forgetabout it." Oh yeah? How many fathers,even creepy militarists with presidential aspirations, would do such a thing?I submit: none. I further submit that, in addition to morbid sexual activitylike rapes and torture, this current lot of thrillers has another pornographicspecialty: the leering contradiction and insulting of basic human nature, underthe relativist rubric that there is no such thing. Real horror films bringto light fears and weaknesses that we, as individuals or a society, actuallypossess. This new breed, much to the contrary, depends heavily on formulas ofmanufactured blame and recrimination, formulas that lead us into paranoia andignorance rather than toward their banishment. At the root of The General'sDaughter is the fetishized figure of the Bad Daddy, which in addition tobeing the biggest cliche of late-90s movies-it even infests "art"films like The Celebration and Happiness-also increasingly readslike a peculiar form of institutional blame-shifting. For my money, it often looks like there's no bogeyman in this particular cupboard, except Hollywooditself: the Bad Daddy who demonstrably and repeatedly makes unconscionable useof women and our willing imaginations. Reeling I was late catching up withBernardo Bertolucci's Besieged, and a little shocked when I did. Thefilm, the tale of a displaced African woman's relationship with an expat musician in Rome, is enjoyable but by most measures minor Bertolucci, kind of a multi-culti, female-centered Last Tango with sentimental longing substituting for erotic obsession. But if the nation's critics were as visually fluent as cinema deserves, surely we should have seen at least a few alarmed reviews headlined COME BACK, VITTORIO-BERNARDO MISSES YOU. The collaboration of Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro remains one of the glories of the modern cinema; it began with 1970's The Spider's Stratagem (my choice for the most visually crucial film of the past half-century) and continued through 1994's Little Buddha. In his last two films, though, Bertolucci has used other cinematographers, and the outcome has been to inadvertently underline Storaro's importance to the visual magic of his work. Granted, Besieged, which was shot by Fabio Cianchetti and is markedly inferior to the Darius Khondji-shot Stealing Beauty, has a lively, inventive look complete with Bertolucci's trademark camera balletics and fine grasp of the tale's pomo-Roma milieu. But it strikingly lacks Storaro's precise, elegant framings, meticulous way with lighting and film grain and, above all, his unparalleled expressiveness with color. The result almost looks like a student imitation of Bertolucci, and it makes me hope that, whatever their differences, the auteur and the camera virtuoso will soon reunite.
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