The Perfect Timing, and Humanity, of Malkhmalbaf's Kandahar; Use The Royal Tenenbaums As an Antidote to the Odious Vanilla Sky

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You want Mohsen Makhmalbaf's new film Kandahar to bring the news, because for two weeks now Kandahar has been the Afghanistan city where U.S. troops have waged a costly fight. Instead, Makhmalbaf offers poetry?an artist's truth (that may explain why Iranian film will never be popular in the U.S.). He starts with a personal hook, based on efforts by Canadian immigrant and journalist Nelofer Pazira to return to her native Afghanistan to find a loved one still suffering there. Pazira acts out her endeavor, playing a character who travels to Afghanistan and who must don the burqa, women's customary head-to-toe dress, enduring the country's oppression of women. As Nafas (an Afghan name that means "respiration"), Pazira's high-fashion cheekbones match the director's high estheticism. She portrays the frustrated helplessness that Westerners?along with Makhmalbaf?can recognize. "I have tried not to have any specific hero," Makhmalbaf says in the presskit. "The hero of Kandahar is the people of Afghanistan, of which ten percent have died over the last 20 years and another 30 percent have been made into refugees. In other words, Kandahar attends to the devastated soul of a nation." But because Nafas/Pazira never actually gets to Kandahar, the film depicts an emotional state of human/artistic despair; it feels, scene after scene, aghast.

A fluent didact, Makhmalbaf's gift to instruct-and-illustrate is balanced by humanist tendencies. (His great, autobiographical A Moment of Innocence was as much a love story as a middle-aged director's lament about youthful zealotry.) Coming out of Iran's recent meta-cinema movement, Kandahar is not so clear-cut as the classic antiwar films Fires on the Plain and Forbidden Games. After engaging public interest in recent history, Makhmalbaf deliberately frustrates it. Kandahar is structured allusively, following Nafas' inquiry into surreal, modern, wartime suffering. Makhmalbaf teaches little about the specifics of tribal warfare in Afghanistan that allowed the Taliban regime to take over; nor does he clarify the differences among the Uzbeks, the Tajiks, the Pashtuns, the Hazaras; but his tangential digressions on themes of oppression, resistance, outrage are never maudlin?a Makhmalbaf strength. He keeps a viewer skeptical, thoughtful. At the same time, Kandahar is a politically intriguing account of the need to reach out?in fact, to intervene?and also a visually enthralling meditation on what Makhmalbaf sees as the current futility and the need for change. (One metaphoric shot shows a solar eclipse; another shows men on crutches hopping toward prosthetic legs landing by Red Cross parachutes.)

Nafas' story includes a young boy, Khak (Sadou Teymouri), who gets expelled from a Muslim school and becomes her renegade guide; next, a mysterious African-American "doctor," Hassan Tantai (Tabib Sahid, who speaks like Clarence Williams III), directs her to a Red Cross camp. Makhmalbaf takes on new humanist archetypes?black man, Afghan woman?to focus his tale of oppression and resistance. There's only one other contemporary world-class exemplar of socially responsible artistic vision: Steven Spielberg, who in Amistad and especially The Color Purple addressed political history with large imagination. (Makhmalbaf might be acknowledging that effort when the Afghan women, passing compacts and lipsticks under their burqas, ask, "Do you remember how you used to use the color purple on your nails?") He shows Nafas and Tantai's subversive communication during a medical examination?with culturally provocative closeups of a mouth or eye behind a hole in a curtain. Makhmalbaf emphasizes Nafas and Tantai's radical participation in Kandahar, speaking their observations and homilies to the camera or into a mini tape recorder. (Nafas wonders, "Can the boys still sing songs in the alleys of Kandahar? Can the young girls still fall in love with those songs? Does love pass through the covers of the burqa?" and Tantai muses, "They don't need a doctor here, they need a baker.") Concerned with the future of human decency, they and Makhmalbaf are improvising?and not just for a movie.

Vanilla Sky
Directed by Cameron Crowe

The Royal Tenenbaums
Directed by Wes Anderson

Overachiever Tom Cruise has never given a completely convincing performance, yet because he clearly tries hard and has become wealthy, the media world bows to his smiling ambition. Writer-director Cameron Crowe wouldn't know how to critique this situation because he suffers his own stupefying career success. In Vanilla Sky, a post-yuppie, big pimpin' revision of It's a Wonderful Life (though actually based on the 1997 Spanish film Abre Los Ojos), Crowe contorts luxe and vanity into high-tech special pleading for insecure rich guys. Media mogul David Aames (Cruise) can't tell his fantasy life of sex with dark-haired waif Penelope Cruz from his nightmare reality of sex with blonde babe Cameron Diaz. His psychotic self-abuse comes complete with physical disfigurement and snazzy nihilism. (The film could just as well be titled It's a Wonderful Death.) Every item of baby boomer excess?Aames' sports car, townhouse, playmates, tomorrow's coolest gadgets?inspires awe and envy. And Crowe, typically, wraps it all in movie and music references?commodities that flatter a particular class of insincere overachiever. This kitsch-fest may be the biggest white elephant in recent movie history, but it's also something worse: Opening this week against Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums, Vanilla Sky exposes the also overcelebrated Crowe as a pop-culture poseur?a graver sin than working as Tom Cruise's court jester.

Since parlaying his Rolling Stone career and early screenwriting gift (the credible youth romances Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Say Anything) into glossy Hollywood dreck (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous), Crowe has betrayed the youth culture idea of rebellion and guileless creativity. Wes Anderson puts a new, heartfelt spin on the promise of pop, but Vanilla Sky recalls that old Rolling Stone Perception/Reality ad campaign that looked hip but, in fact, championed materialism, anti-idealism and taking nothing in pop culture seriously. Even the plot's Fatal Attraction triangle gets drowned in avarice and privilege. When Aames is interrogated by a psychologist (Kurt Russell) about his involvement in a crime of passion, Aames wears a latex mask (called "an aesthetic regenerating shield") to hide his scars. This gimmick isn't the big star confession Crowe pretends, because Cruise always wears a mask, is always hollow. Behind the puff-pastry facial mutilation, no deep Dorian Gray unpleasantness is revealed.

Exactly who is behind that latex mask? Hannibal Lecter or a Jann Wenner prototype? Aames owns three magazines, runs a worldwide publishing house and manages his personal relations conceitedly, including with his best friend Brian Shelby (Jason Lee), a writer he keeps under contract and treats as chattel. Crowe avoids confronting Aames' carelessness about the women in his life or the world he commands. He's just a flirty, poor little rich boy. A critic cannot say how this redounds upon Crowe-Cruise-Wenner's real life consanguinity, but certain linguistic peculiarities (referring to a woman as Aames' "fuck buddy," Diaz blurting "I swallowed your cum! That means something!") suggest inadvertent homoerotic tension that Crowe also shields against. (The women's roles are vapid, and Penelope Cruz's English is practically unintelligible.) Although characters keep intoning, "The subconscious is a powerful thing," the idea merely sets up the film's time-twisting play with Aames' flexible mental state?a fancy distraction from seriously questioning Aames' behavior.

Without a moral base?and as Aames gets more anxious?Vanilla Sky's glibness becomes overwrought. Crowe pulls a Robert Zemeckis, using overscaled f/x, from a graphic car crash to digitized sci-fi fantasies. These expensive hallucinations play Aames' freakout back to him (us) through simulacra of old records and movies?a Rolling Stone Rorschach. His subconscious paranoically refracts pop culture as trivia, falsifying every emotion displayed, every feeling the music connotes. Violence is backed by Todd Rundgren's "Can We Still Be Friends?," Aames' agitation is scored to "Western Union," etc. Though a spawn of Rolling Stone, Crowe relays no personal sensitivity about pop. For him and Aames it's all stuff, something to show off his superior acquisitiveness whether the brand name is Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan or French New Wave movies.

To combat another noxious Crowe/Cruise yuppie hero hagiography (Aames' "Citizen Dildo" nickname could also apply to Jerry Maguire), let's understand this plundering of pop just for egotism and rapacity. Aames represents that part of our culture that has rendered so much pop music inane through prostitution in movies and tv commercials. The totems tell us nothing about Aames except his ability to buy them. Aames' bedroom contains huge, gorgeous Jules et Jim and A Bout de Souffle posters; it's just yuppie showing-off reflected in the film itself when Aames idealizes Cruz in terms of Jules et Jim. His misreading of that movie proves it had no bearing on him (or Crowe); the finest pop art of the past?including Vanilla Sky's overload of hit tunes?has now simply been commodified, made meaningless.

Crowe's disgrace of his pop music background contrasts Wes Anderson's felicitous use of pop as the heart of The Royal Tenenbaums. When Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson hide away from the adult world, grownups lying in a kid's tent, their anguish is made exquisite by Anderson's use of the Rolling Stones' "Ruby Tuesday," a doubly nostalgic lament because Anderson's sensibility?and the characters' desire for regression and communication?both developed from popular culture. Crowe uses pop for self-aggrandizement (like a snide rock critic) but The Royal Tenenbaums' pop subtext is unusual and special for defying such cynicism.

Anderson's emotional connection to pop is almost as extraordinary as Terence Davies' in The Long Day Closes. At Tenenbaums' New York Film Festival showing, the temporary music track featured the Beatles' "Hey Jude" during the opening sequence and "I'm Looking Through You" for the closing. "Hey Jude" was momentous, maybe too powerful. But the instinct to use it for Tenenbaums' early epiphany (a lonely child craving family connection sets a falcon flying across the urban sky) was genuine artistry. It reintroduced the song's great yearning. Alluding to the song's history (Paul wrote it to console Julian Lennon's anguish over John's divorce), Anderson made his story of a family's failure, betrayal and disaster irresistible.

Unable to get legal clearance, Anderson now opens with Elliott Smith's cover of "Hey Jude" and closes with the Beach Boys' trenchant "Sloop John B." The first substitution is better. Smith's modest version better suits this eccentric fable in which Anderson poignantly substitutes imagined worlds for real totems?the Lindbergh Palace for the Waldorf-Astoria, the Braverman Prize for the Guggenheim Fellowship, Archer Ave. for 5th Ave., Windswept Fields for Flushing Meadows?always expressing an emotional essence. His "New York" is a pop culture collage. Despite Robert Yeoman's hyperrealistic widescreen photography, Tenenbaums' dream world is surreal (like one character's breeding of Dalmatian mice).

But Crowe offers an upscale "New York" of fabulous impossibility. His Vanilla Skyline (including the World Trade Center) feels as impersonal as a Lexus ad. Nothing about it matches Anderson's eccentricity. Shots of Aames dashing through John Toll's pristine mirage of Times Square lack the splendor of pop expressiveness. Vanilla Sky's conspicuous exploitation of pop music?and people?coldly proclaims Aames' self-centeredness, excusing the responsibilities of wealth, while The Royal Tenenbaums pays homage to peculiarly articulated personal visions. Crowe ransacks the rock 'n' roll catalog like a sycophant flattering the economy's key players (and their ugly psyches). That's the ultimate betrayal in a film that sentimentalizes betrayal.

"Why 'not a genius?'" Owen Wilson asks in Tenenbaums, wondering why a critic doubts an artist's potential. As Eli Cash, the Tenenbaums' decadent novelist/neighbor, Wilson recalls an adult Jeff Spicoli from Ridgemont High but also Anderson himself, a maybe-genius with a prodigiously strange sensibility. It's through pop music that this critic was able to get his bearings on both Anderson and Crowe. Pop richness gives Anderson's nerdiness genuine eloquence (and makes the difference between Tenenbaums and the very fine, very similar 1991 family drama Crooked Hearts). It's a lesson in the complicated ways our culture's moral traditions are sustained. Anderson's attentive to humane pop whereas Crowe imitates sardonic Billy Wilder (his book Conversations with Wilder features more kissing-up). This is especially apparent when Crowe ignores Brian's selling out for professional gain (as in Wilder's The Apartment) rather than holding Aames to account for stealing his girlfriend. Compare The Apartment's famous cracked-mirror scene that ridicules a character's secret shame to the Tenenbaums' moment when an exposed smoking habit wounds the self-image of a character involved in a love triangle. It's the difference between cynicism and compassion. Vanilla Sky's brown-nosing slickness is stuck in the middle.

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