Whitegirl Julia Stiles in Save the Last Dance
When Oliver Stone paraded Cameron Diaz, the white girl of the moment, through Any Given Sunday's football locker room and posed her next to a black player with the most ostentatious black phallus in the history of Hollywood cinema, American moviegoers everywhere suddenly understood semiotics. (A friend asked me which I thought was more radical: "That one scene? Or all of Beloved." I'm still not sure.) Nothing so audacious occurs in Save the Last Dance. Its white-girl-and-black-guy provocation is, well, ho-hum.
But something must explain this movie already making more money than the 1991 Jungle Fever. (Save the Last Dance's opening weekend gross was $25 million.) In part, it portrays a key element Jungle Fever lacked: innocence. The Britney Spears-as-Janet Jackson era has produced a generation whose love of pop evinces a genuinely crossed-over ideology. Plush-faced white girl Julia Stiles and her roundheaded black boyfriend Sean Patrick Thomas could grind all night and produce sexual sparks no more dangerous than Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls. It's MTV's way (as the film's producers) of ratifying its rampant commercialism?of making safe what Ricky Martin euphemistically calls "sounds." The specific rhythm and beseeching heard in r&b can typically exclude a black artist from being considered "pop" but, ironically, helps secure the "pop" status of imitative white performers. This has been going on since the Drifters' "Save the Last Dance for Me" hit #1 on both the pop and r&b charts in 1960; that record means nothing to the audience for this film (the title is a coded message to their baby boomer parents, saying to them what few would dare say in 1960). In that spirit, Save the Last Dance gainsays a liberal message to which only a few people are still committed?perhaps not even the marketers of the reverse minstrel show that is today's teen pop. Save the Last Dance is a love story that dare not reveal its game; agit-pop without principles.
So soon after the nonsense of Billy Elliot, Save the Last Dance has Sara (Stiles) give up her ambition to be a Juilliard ballet student. (Ballet a universal model of liberation? Well, at least it isn't Girlfight.) When transferred to an inner-city Chicago high school, she drifts until rescued from loner status by an actual brother-and-sister act: Derek (Thomas) and his single-mom sibling Chenille (Kerry Washington). Derek's interest in Sara's dancing is so platonic it seems gay. Director Thomas Carter and screenwriters Duane Adler and Cheryl Edwards disregard why boys and girls like to dance together. These kids have no motivation besides career motivation. Perhaps it's because the filmmakers are selling an integration myth as a spur for commerce rather than attending the actual difficulties of race- and culture-mixing. Sara's father (Terry Kinney) is a jazz musician presumably down with the brothers yet completely unresponsive (even uninterested) in whom his only daughter is dating.
Like Spike Lee in Jungle Fever, these filmmakers neglect crossover attraction. That's the movie's basic racist flaw. Not even MTV's incessant promotion campaign gets jiggy; it sells the film's "Go for it!" message without ever specifying what "it" is. This way they can exploit race while also making the disingenuous suggestion that race doesn't matter anymore. The weekend gross suggests something else: a desire to see the taboo acted out?maybe a Britney Spears duet with Mystikal. Despite Stiles' and Thomas' prurient roles in, respectively, State and Main and Cruel Intentions, their dance scenes are curiously asexual. Taboo is sterilized, not repudiated. Seeking friction, Carter adopts Coppola's The Cotton Club tic: frantically crosscutting dance sequences with violent scenes somewhere else. It's another (lame) way of dealing with racial stereotypes by following Derek's best friend, a hot-tempered gangsta. (Fredro Starr, or is that redundant?)
In the film's only touch of authenticity, Sara, out of nowhere, gets scolded by Chennille about white women taking the few eligible black men away from sisters. Carter obviously has listened to black female complaints about interracial dating, but this ain't enough. As Carter moves on to a phony Flashdance finale (yes, all it takes is a body-double's pop dancing to get into Juilliard), Save the Last Dance seals its misrepresentation of what crossover means. This is Rocky-Flashdance-Billy Elliot for an America that denies its social substance yet deceptively pursues sentimental allegiance. MTV hasn't paid attention to the film's hits-heavy soundtrack CD where Pink's "You Make Me Sick" insinuates a white girl's cross-cultural ache more nakedly than Stiles; whereas K-Ci and Jojo's "Crazy" wildly articulates romantic longing, giving voice to the black phallus in ways Sean Patrick Thomas cannot. MTV not only lacks Oliver Stone's audacity, but its timidity (also apparent in its Julie Dash tv-movie Love Song) contradicts the implicit liberty in pop music bringing people together. In their hearts? No, only to the box office.
Directed by Sean Penn
Even the title of Sean Penn's third directorial venture, The Pledge, is humorless. It's another child-killing movie like his 1995 The Crossing Guard, another guilty-conscience melodrama like his debut The Indian Runner. Apparently, the only thing Penn loves more than definite articles is actors. It's hard to remember the scenery in his first two movies because the actors had chewed it up. This time he's drafted a higher-quality team. Jack Nicholson pulls some astonishingly subtle expressions as a retired cop who makes a promise to a bereft mother ("Swear by your soul's salvation"?a crazy request that could only be taken seriously in acting class) and he shares with Vanessa Redgrave a near-perfect moment of confessed, mournful weariness. After that there's just dragged-out, predictable pathos.
The Pledge is adapted from a novel by Friedrich Durrenmatt. But if Penn, the Hollywood scourge, had filmed a modern version of Durrenmatt's play The Visit, it might not have been the masterpiece Mambety made of it in Hyenas, yet it would zero in on the things that have gone wrong in America that Penn frequently pontificates about, as well as critiquing Hollywood's greed, vanity and demagoguery. (Nicholson and Redgrave could work it, maybe Nicholson and Dunaway, too.) Instead he concentrates on tedious actorish details, like Nicholson putting out a cigarette in an orange peel.
As an actor Penn can be surprising and inventive (the otherwise worthless She's So Lovely). But as a filmmaker he is alarmingly self-important and grim. The Pledge makes a tawdry mess of the very same themes that Bruno Dumont handled with austerity and profundity in Humanité. My respect for Penn makes me wish he'd lighten up. After making some brave public pronouncements on film industry sloth, Penn contradicts himself by putting out a movie like this, which kills the desire for moviegoing.
Directed by Elem Klimov
Like setting a light meter in one's imagination of war, Come and See illuminates deprivation, brutality, hopelessness. Elem Klimov follows a young boy, Florya (Alexei Kravchenko), during the 1943 Nazi invasion of Byelorussia, a Soviet Republic of 80,000 square miles located on the western border of Russia. (Some 628 Byelorussian villages were burned to the ground, Klimov reports.) As Florya takes up arms with the partisan rebels, he loses his innocence, possibly his sanity and certainly his peace of mind. Come and See presents this result of warfare as the modern psychological condition. But Klimov isn't a mere social historian, he's a visionary obsessed with war's phantasmagoria. World War II is seen through Florya's eyes (Kravchenko exhibits the haunted shock that Young Jim tried to close his eyes to at the end of Empire of the Sun) but Come and See is about more than individual consciousness. Hell is visited indiscriminately upon children, women, families, soldiers and partisans.
In Klimov's cavalcade of horrors, each sequence has a crazed, voluptuous energy. His off-balance beauty and catastrophe (mixing nature with firepower) is relentless. The effects?using sound to dissociate experience and perception?range from comical to disturbing. Madness is evoked in fleeting instances like Florya putting his head in mud, or his exhilarating, rain-soaked idyll with a young girl, Glasha (Olga Mironova), quickly turning into a life-or-death scramble through a quagmire. (They struggle as if in slo-mo while The Blue Danube burbles on the soundtrack.)
Come and See's progression into surrealism emphasizes a subjective use of technology?rack focus, light and lens changes, shifting audibility. Klimov favors cutting from a debacle to someone watching, looking. It's to locate perception, to register unbelievable events (such as a burnt corpse talking), to witness. This is baroque modernism. Klimov advances that flowing Russian style we know from Tarkovsky, Paradjanov, Kalatozov, but to an enlightening purpose like Godard's Les Carabiniers. To show how modern war experience has changed us, his horror pageantry is regularly punctuated by picture-taking, cameras wielded as commonly as rifles. Nightmares get recorded and codified by Florya, the media and human memory. You might note (or complain) that Come and See (made in 1985) is overestheticized. But then so was Apocalypse Now, a film with far less philosophical clarity. Klimov both overplays his hand and inscribes his point when Florya shoots a poster of Hitler, then flashes on a montage of black-and-white WWII newsreel atrocity footage?run backward (an ingenious device that might have excused the climactic montage in Bamboozled). This gambit ends self-consciously making a connection to human horror that is utterly tragic to contemplate. Seeing it, you'll understand why Klimov could not go on to make another movie.
Come and See plays Feb. 2-8 at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center, 165 W. 65th St. (B'way), 875-5600.
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