Separate and Unequal Face it: Movie culture has split in two?films now appeal to either the dumb or the deluded. While critics labor under the fantasy that there is an audience for intelligent, sometimes serious movies, along comes a Titanic, a Blair Witch Project and more recently The Bone Collector and Double Jeopardy, proving that moviegoers are mostly suckers for trash. All others wait for the video tape. Sure, films like Julien Donkey-Boy and Dogma get made?with the requisite elements of grossness and juvenility?but, perhaps due to the misguided ambitions and muddled exposition, they circle the toilet bowl and plop. No audience exists for such junk (outside of film execs chasing a pseudo-intelligentsia already bored by Harmony Korine and Kevin Smith). Today's film audience is primarily young dupes consuming mindless fantasy. Their box-office picks confound the judgments of critics who think in terms of classics, and overwhelms the old, popular conception of movie art.
You can't find an identifiable character or social situation in either Double Jeopardy or The Bone Collector, only plot-formulae that deliver what audiences already got from Kiss the Girls and The Fugitive, Silence of the Lambs, Cape Fear, Seven and 8mm. Disproving antiquated ideas about the way film genres satisfy basic curiosities by ritualizing and repeating them, these murder plots do not advance our understanding. The Bone Collector merely combines a serial killer setup with the topics of ethnic, gender and (yawn) Oedipal tension in police institutions, as trivially as Double Jeopardy manipulates spouse abuse and criminal rehabilitation. In the first, Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie play race and gender archetypes, while Ashley Judd and Tommy Lee Jones, in the second, rerun their usual tearful-maiden, gruff-lawman function. But whatever real-life crises might be suggested in the story lines, each of these characters' dilemmas remained superficial, whimsical, divulging little about human nature and the ideas buttressing our social structures. There's no art, only cash, in the repetition.
That's probably why both The Bone Collector and Double Jeopardy happen to be directed by Australians?respectively Phil Noyce and Bruce Beresford?immigrant hacks who left behind the pretenses of their third-rate culture to apply impersonal competence to big-budget Hollywood product. Their journeyman instincts (and recent history of flops) hip them to film culture's rupture, so telling these very base stories?full of lurid suspense and intense violence?capitulates to the vestigial film audience. Not even the supposed adult themes of the middlebrow Australians are apparent. Noyce specializes in hacked-off, bloody body parts and Beresford goes in for auto-demolition in Judd's most animated scene. You expect Kevin Spacey to turn up and do his lunatic thing, Jodie Foster to take over and kick-start Judd's insipidness or Gwyneth Paltrow's head to turn up in a box. The only shock effect left for either film is how undistinguished the routinized gimmicks have become. Neither Noyce nor Beresford is capable of the immense pleasure that Tim Burton provides in the carnival of Sleepy Hollow?constantly kidding audience susceptibility then providing beauty and wit, the invaluable signs of artistry Blair Witch rejected.
The fall movie season has seen the steady release of highbrow pop aspirants?yet, good or bad, movies like Three Kings and Fight Club aren't gaining viewers or intellectual momentum; only the shrill profit. The Bone Collector's debut take of $17 million ought to signify some authentic popular response. But its psycho killer's m.o., picking up taxi passengers before hacking them to death, simply does for cabs what Psycho did for showers (only coincidentally besting Danny Glover's recent protest before the Taxi and Limousine Commission). The glib treatment of glass-ceiling police politics in Washington and Jolie's asexual relationship is nothing like Charles Burnett's The Glass Shield (although the villain has memorable bad cop dialogue: "Do you know what they do to police in prison? I was abused day in, day out for six years. I was a human toilet"). It's really just okeydoke criminal justice reassurance, which might be the clue to its appeal. Instead of taking another ride on Martin Scorsese's Urban-Nightmare-go-round (though Bringing Out the Dead is his best in years), audiences prefer the remote, formalized, completely unbelievable spooks in The Bone Collector. Its cliches acknowledge the unease put into the culture by Silence of the Lambs?a memory of grisliness that filmgoers hold onto.
Double Jeopardy is sillier but gets no closer to credulity?it's essentially another post-O.J. movie (the first since Sally Field's Eye for an Eye). Enough time has passed so that Ashley Judd can play a character who gets away with dispatching a spouse and win pop approval. Though combining the box-office elements of Judd's Kiss the Girls and Jones' The Fugitive, it does the trick (grossing $100 million to date) that Catherine Breillat's obtuse pseudo-feminist French film Romance overthought: Double Jeopardy simplifies Judd's bedroom resentment of her rich, devious husband (Bruce Greenwood) into old-fashioned revenge fantasy with a twist?maternalism with a gun. She's only trying to get back the child from whom she was separated by a jail term frame-up, but the kid's incidental to the plot. A child double teases Judd's in a cemetery chase scene (she pursues her own motherly guilt) leading to her temporary burial in a coffin. It's hackneyed (evoking 8mm and I Still Know What You Did Last Summer) except for the possibility of the child double representing moviegoers' own contrived sense of innocence and moral abandonment. See him as the new young film audience that Hollywood now pursues at all costs and with no artistic responsibility. Beresford can't even pull off their attempted Hitchcockian sexual frisson when Judd confronts her rat-bastard husband by wearing a designed-to-kill dress. It's the kind of entrance Melanie Griffith aces in Crazy in Alabama, but Judd just looks frumpy; like Beresford, she's clueless about the interplay of sex and aggression, so it's all a clumsy get-up.
Partly it's the lack of style in these murder mysteries that exposes their lack of conviction; the filmmakers don't really believe in what they're doing. (Noyce stood outside the theater previewing The Bone Collector blandly accepting a sycophant's praise of "the locations!") Audiences don't believe in it either but some keep going anyway. I'd like to think they're searching to find these serial killer/wife abuse plots done soulfully?for the abject fear and sympathy Jodie Foster juggled in the night-vision scene of The Silence of the Lambs. They'd surely discover it in Felicia's Journey, but its style might not be anxious enough to hold interest or hold out for the humane revelation. We once expected art to illuminate our darkness, but Hollywood, finding it easier to simply taunt and excite, has accustomed a public to settle for its own ignorance. That's the essential gap in today's movie culture?between those expecting vision and those accepting oblivion.
Felicia's Journey directed by Atom Egoyan Finally, a good movie from Atom Egoyan. Felicia's Journey's first half is plodding as usual?Egoyan makes obvious, "poetic" points one by one?but, steadily, the innocent waif-meets-dangerous-man routine gains sensitivity and grace in the last half. It's the antidote to The Bone Collector and Double Jeopardy. Elaine Cassidy and Bob Hoskins achieve perfect pathos as an Irish girl looking for the father of her unborn child and the serial killer whose m.o. addresses his own mother-fixated childhood.
Based on a novel by William Trevor (a better writer than Russell Banks, author of Egoyan's previous film, the precious, excruciating The Sweet Hereafter), Felicia's Journey takes the serial-killer themes seriously, lyrically. Instead of exploiting sick fascination, Egoyan uses his prevailing interest in voyeuristic detail and paranoia to recreate the sense of world-consciousness Brian De Palma taps into. Egoyan's sensibility is calmer but not subtler?after all, he's Canadian: methodical, with a literal-minded decency. It helps that he's working in Great Britain, for him a naturally exotic locale, so that his protagonists' crossed paths seem uncontrived; he manages a somewhat spiritual evocation.
Egoyan's techno-conceits were never brilliant enough to achieve the kind of cultural revelations he desired (ever since Family Viewing he's wanted to domesticate Alphaville) and the videotape scenes of Joseph Hilditch's previous victims and the flashbacks to his childhood watching his mother perform as a famous tv star are well thought out but banal. It's pop music like Kate Bush's "The Sensual World" accompanying a young woman's vagabond emergence into the world that enriches Felicia's Journey. The theme song is a saccharine 60s tune "The Heart of a Child" ("What a wonderful world we would live in /With hatred and love reconciled/Trust would replace suspicion/And hope would replace despair/Our tears would turn to laughter/And wishing would turn to prayer"). Along with "My Special Angel" these tunes provide a Dennis Potter existential amplitude. The vintage recordings are by Malcolm Vaughan, whose androgynous tremolo quasi-explains Felicia and Hilditch's sexual tension?their tandem suffering from lost innocence, the voicing of sexual and spiritual longing.
Elaine Cassidy's perfectly cast naivete brings youth to an ancient-looking (Celtic) face, while Bob Hoskins has never given a more nuanced, expressive portrayal, this time of a different masculine torment, a quiet monster. Felicia's Journey is as humane as Jonathan Demme tried to make The Silence of the Lambs but the Hollywood zeitgeist overwhelmed him (and us). The adult spirituality Egoyan observes at last shows the serial killer genre done responsibly and thereby answers the social dismay behind its popularity. The emotive closing half finally justifies Alan Rudolph's faith in Egoyan and could instill movie faith in the thrill-seekers who stumble onto it. The big question is: will they?