I saw three films yesterday. I intended to see one or two, but here’s what happened: I wanted to see Hellboy II, but I knew I wasn’t going to get out of the house in time, so I thought I’d take a poor man’s substitute, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. I’ve generally enjoyed the Mummy films — the first one, certainly, managed to be exactly what it set out to be, a light-touch relaunch of a creaky old serial idea. But this…. Oooo. Director Rob Cohen, fresh off the artistic triumph of Stealth, manages to make his action scenes so incoherent that I was actually grateful for the narration that explained what was going on in the herky-jerky, visually incomprehensible opening. (Summary: the emperor was a bad guy.) Normally this kind of voice-over play-by-play is irritating, but here — it’s necessary! It’s hard to believe the original’s writer-director Stephen Sommers, creative force behind the nonmemorable Van Helsing, would be missed, but apparently he at least knew how to create clear, singular images — think of that great shot of the tiny biplane flying out of the sandstorm and the sand shifting into the angry face of the mummy.
The shooting settles down a little bit after the opener, but it doesn’t help, because there’s absolutely nothing of interest happening. John Hannah, an actor I like, is given the depressing role of the hysterical comic relief, but at least he’s comfortable with his Englishness — can somebody please ask Maria Bello to stop enunciating like it’s her first day reading news for the BBC? Of course, maybe she’s afraid she won’t be heard — Brendan Fraser for some reason sounds like a tired Jame Gumb in an echo chamber. Maybe he’s mourning the loss of Arnold Vosloo, an underappreciated B-movie villain who made the first two films a whole lot more fun. (Jet Li can be a good villain, too, but he’s basically not in this movie.) Jesus — normally I like all these actors, and here all I want to do is slap them around.
Ultimately, though, a film like this lives or dies on two things — a moderately interesting story, and good setpieces. But the story is assembled from pieces ripped more-or-less whole from the Indiana Jones films — the father-and-son archaeologists who can’t communicate being the largest chunk, and also the worst-executed. Well, I suppose there weren’t any yetis in the Indy movies, but the yetis here are not only not particularly interesting or dramatic, they’re also a really egregious ally-as-mode-of-emergency-transportation, the kind of thing that didn’t really work even when Tolkein did it.
As for the setpieces, they’re as ill-conceived and poorly framed as the opener. Bleah. Not even interesting enough for me to get worked up about.
Michelle Yeoh, no surprise, is dignified and even interesting, but she can’t save this turd. I walked out after about an hour and a half.
So to cleanse my palate, I went to the Grand Cinema in Tacoma and saw Catherine Breillat’s Une Veille Maitresse (The Last Mistress). Breillat’s known for films that provocatively, disquietingly explore the boundaries of acceptable thought about sexuality, so it’s no surprise when Asia Argento’s Vellini first confesses her love for Fu’ad Ait Aattou’s Ryno by licking the blood from his wound after he purposefully allows himself to be shot in a duel with her husband, or when the two try to exorcise their grief through sex in front of their daughter’s funeral pyre. But what is surprising is how sympathetic Breillat finally is to her characters — something I didn’t see in Romance, all cool detachment and amusement, or À Ma Soeur!, which posited that all love is rape and that real rape is at least honest.
The story has a long grey beard — a man falls in love with an independent, passionate woman, they have a ten-year love affair, but eventually he tries to put away childish things and marry responsibly (i.e., to someone else). This is Breillat, and the source material is French, so it’s a good deal more explicit than Austen or Bronte, but everything here feels terribly familiar. Whether it’s the opera house as fishbowl from Dangerous Liasons or the numerous visual references to Carmen or the smarter-than-she-appears wife from The Age of Innocence, the film is quite comfortable borrowing from its forebears (I’m pretty sure Vanity Fair pokes its head in the door at some point, too). But Breillat at least pilfers skillfully, adding to and critiquing what she steals — Vellini is no Carmen; Carmen is unsympathetic from top to bottom, while Vellini is both cruel and vulnerable.
Two things really stand out for me in this movie. First, Asia Argento, like Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, succeeds by allowing the character to be excessive without indulging in excess as an actor. Vellini is a catastrophic, out-of-bounds phenomenon, but Argento remains in control, never eating the scenery despite obvious opportunity. A lot of credit surely goes to Breillat’s intellectual precision, but it’s Argento who has to carry this out, conveying genuine passion and indomitability without letting the character drift into archetype. Director and actor conspire here to do something I’m not sure would have been possible if the director had been a man. Men are too inclined to see difficult women like Vellini as either enemies or goddesses, but Breillat’s able to keep her a real woman the whole time, even when she’s also making her an icon. When the wife sees Vellini for the first time, she’s in full icon mode, seated on a coil of rope on the rocky seashore, dressed in red Spanish silk, but also wearing a fisherwoman’s bonnet and smoking a cigar. She’s everything the wife, a sweet, bland noblewoman, is incapable of being. Sure, she’s a personification of dangerous living, but even here Vellini remains human, a woman who’s followed her lover from Paris to the sea, with no promise of any affection from him, just because she can’t stand to be apart from him. Vellini destroys her rival with a look, and yet she’s only doing what she must.
The second thing I really like is that Breillat carefully dismantles the cliche of “boredom” among the upper classes, suggesting that “boredom” in their lives, as in ours, is usually a mask for frustration and an inability to truly embrace life. Vellini and Ryno, for all their weird sex play with blood, are basically a couple in love who find themselves thwarted by social roles, especially the confining roles acceptable for women in the nineteenth century. There’s some overobvious use of Bible verses to hammer home the sexist conception of marriage during Ryno’s wedding, but maybe a blunt instrument is appropriate to smack us with the wrongness of Ryno’s reasons for marrying Hermangarde instead of the woman who has obviously been his real wife from the beginning. The need to confine, control, or moderate Vellini is really the central conflict of the film, and to the degree that she tries to straitjacket herself, the life drains out of her. But lacking, perhaps, a language to properly express such political conceits, she instead speaks in the vernacular of boredom, “ennui.”
Before I go on to Midnight Cowboy, I’d like to pause to briefly mention the role pubic hair, body hair in general, plays in this movie. I mentioned Breillat’s use of pubic hair in a previous article, but this film ups the ante by giving Vellini both underarm and pubic hair while discreetly but definitively proving that Hermangarde, the chaste wife, has none. This seems like a clever little editorial on Breillat’s part about our modern expectations, but it brings up something I’ve wanted to write about for a while. I was thinking of a title like “The Disappearance of the Great American Vagina,” but (a) that’s technically incorrect, since the vagina is actually only the interior portion, and (b) it’s not really substantive enough for its own article. But here’s my observation, for what it’s worth: shaved pubes ruined nudity.
Back in the ’70s and early ’80s, when I was too young to benefit from it, frontal female nudity reached an apex in American films. Male nudity would have to wait a couple of decades, but back then no serious filmmaker would dare omit the naked female form — Altman, Kubrick, Polanski, Schlesinger, et al included skin as a matter of course. It was like long lens photography — they forgot for a while how to make movies without it. Not only that, but a few years later sex comedies pretty much went gonzo for it — ever seen Porky’s? There’s simply no way that film would get made today, and I think it’s Verhoeven’s fault.
Granted, Sharon Stone appeared to have some kind token patch going on under her skirt in the infamous Basic Instinct leg-crossing scene. But she, Verhoeven, and the movie definitely crossed a line. All of a sudden, for the first time in a mainstream film, there was nothing between us and the actual mechanics of a woman’s sex but warm, dead air — and it was all too much. We suddenly realized we didn’t want to see that much. Well, some of us did. Mostly the ones who were alone at home on a Friday night. But the mainstream rebelled. It was time to set some limits.
Ironically, we’ve all had the opportunity to see way more female genitalia in the past two decades than anyone of ages past, including Casanova, could have contemplated. But despite the rise of video and internet porn and the concurrent societal trend to depilation, the clean look creates problems for onscreen nudity, because we still don’t want to see women in all their fascinating and surprising detail on our movie screens. Maybe because movies are still a public form of entertainment. (I saw In The Realm Of The Senses in a theater, and yeah, it was weird.) Anyway, as the pubic privacy shield first shrank and then disappeared altogether, so did onscreen frontal nudity. Oh, sure, Catherine Breillat can show us Roxane Mesquida’s nude mons pubis, but (a) she’s French and (b) even she is exquisitely careful to avoid any, uh, topology.
Okay, enough of that.
I’d never seen Midnight Cowboy. So shoot me. But there it was for some kind of special program at the Grand, so I went out for a gyro and came back. The lady selling tickets recognized me and, in honor of my back-to-back patronage, offered me a small popcorn on the house. I love small movie houses.
I fully expected Cowboy to be one of those pop culture false gods that’s better as a dorm-room poster than an actual experience. And that’s partly true. Dustin Hoffman’s take on dying sad sack Ratso Rizzo seems vastly overrated as a performance, mannered and stagey. The flashbacks don’t work at all — the past is presented in an ellipsized form that suggests the filmmakers don’t care to investigate their character’s memories for anything other than half-baked cliches, including a less-than-attentive grandmother and a weird rape subplot that’s too provocative to be ignored and too vague to make any sense. The fantasy sequences about Miami are often equally bad — Jon Voight runs on the beach toward Hoffman in something very like a feminine hygiene product commercial.
But when the film stays in the present, it manages an entirely worthwhile series of small comic portraits of odd New York characters. My favorite is the woman in the diner who, in a slow and possibly drug-addled way, extracts a plastic mouse from her hair, runs it playfully over her child’s face, and hides it in her hair again. But there are other, more sustained characterizations, too, like the brother-and-sister team who go around gathering human curiosities for hip art happenings, or the woman who picks Joe up on his first day of “hustling,” taking him home and using him, then pretending to be offended when he asks for money and actually conning him out of cab fare. All of Joe’s encounters as a naive would-be hustler work very well; the comedy is light and effective. And even though the end is obvious almost from the beginning, Rizzo’s death, and Joe’s (largely implicit) despair following it, change the comedy into something bittersweet.