Beyond the Multiplex

Werner Herzog's amazing documentary about a doomed grizzly bear researcher; a ruthless film about a hypersexual 15-year-old; a riveting civil rights story, and more.

Published August 11, 2005 9:19PM (EDT)

Our theme this week is minimalism, which is another way of saying that movies made on an intimate scale with few resources can make a big impact, if the filmmaker in question has something to convey.

OK, it's really another way of saying that Beyond the Multiplex is back from almost two weeks of vacation (I know it was tough, but you survived somehow) and here we are in late summer, when the film calendar reaches its most miscellaneous moment.

So it's a grab bag of goodies, essentially unrelated except for the fact that they're being released in out-of-the-way theaters in August (or later) and they need your help! Our marquee offering this week isn't going to challenge "Citizen Kane" for the title of best movie ever, but it might make a big splash among a certain demographic: "Pretty Persuasion," featuring an amazing performance by Evan Rachel Wood, is a would-be teen cult classic that should be appearing on dorm-room TV sets well into the next decade.

I'm sneaking in a last-minute review of Werner Herzog's stunning documentary about Timothy Treadwell, the man who lived and died among Alaskan grizzlies, one of the most hair-raising films you'll ever see. There's also the chilling but finally heroic story of one of America's last lynchings, a horrendous event that sparked the civil rights movement; a haunting Japanese miniature about the loneliest man in the world; and an ultra-low-budget New York indie that captures something of the city's mystical post-9/11 spirit.

"Grizzly Man": New Age dude stars in "Heart of Darkness"
"I've got the smell of death on my fingers," Timothy Treadwell says to his camera near the beginning of Werner Herzog's "Grizzly Man," with a brown bear that outweighs him by several hundred pounds snuffling in the near distance. You gasp, knowing what will happen to Treadwell not long after that video was shot. You'll gasp plenty more times in "Grizzly Man," but by the end of Herzog's remarkable meditation on violence, nature, filmmaking and -- his usual subject -- the mystery of human nature, you've seen Treadwell discuss his own death so much that the event itself seems less ironic than inevitable.

Herzog, who for my money is the best and strangest documentarian in the field today, was entrusted with more than 100 hours of video Treadwell shot during his last four summers among the bears of Katmai National Park, on the Alaskan peninsula. If Treadwell is looking down from bear heaven, I hope he has enough sense to be delighted. Herzog immediately recognized the doomed ursine-lover as exactly the sort of damaged, vainglorious dreamer he has pursued in all his fiction and documentary films -- in some ways, the sort of dreamer he is himself.

Although Treadwell reveals himself in the footage (and in Herzog's separate research) to be a severely troubled man -- both naive and arrogant, with delusions of grandeur and a paranoid streak that seems to get worse as time goes on -- the filmmaker clearly views him with affection. Herzog never succumbs to the mockery much of the media coverage fell into after Treadwell was killed in October 2003 ("Man loves bears; they eat him" was too delightful a narrative to resist). Part of this is technical: As Herzog shows us clearly, Treadwell developed into a fine amateur filmmaker, and captured a mother lode of unreproducible wildlife footage. When he wakes up to a fox cub playing atop his tent, and photographs it from the inside, Herzog observes in voice-over: "All the Hollywood directors, with all their union crews, could never think of capturing this moment."

Furthermore, as irrational as Treadwell's quest may have been, Herzog wants us to remember that he lived intimately among ferocious wild animals for 12 seasons (and almost all of a 13th) without major incident. The story unfolds with the fatefulness of Sophocles: We watch Treadwell, in his video diaries, becoming more and more confident of his abilities, and also more and more clearly unhinged. He fervently believes he is protecting "his" bears, gives them names, tells them he loves them. But protecting them from what? Katmai is a national park, where thousands of bears live unmolested. There is no legal hunting, no commercial development and (according to a biologist Herzog interviews) very little poaching.

The death of Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard (who is almost invisible in the film -- Treadwell rarely photographed her, and her family declined to participate), probably happened because they returned to their camp in the fall, well after the point when they customarily left for California. The bears Treadwell knew and who knew him had left or gone into hibernation; the one that killed and ate him and Huguenard was a strange elderly male, alone and desperate for food late in the season. As Treadwell tells us himself in one video excerpt, old, hungry and solitary bears are exactly the ones that decide to turn on humans.

You may learn more about the gruesome details of Treadwell and Huguenard's deaths than you want to know, but Herzog never shows us the autopsy photographs or plays the notorious audiotape of their killings. (One of them evidently turned the camera on when the attack began, but never took the lens cap off.) In perhaps the film's most dramatic scene, Treadwell's ex-girlfriend and executor, Jewel Palovak, allows Herzog to hear the tape through earphones. He listens for 30 seconds or so, then takes the phones off. "You must never listen to this, Jewel," he tells her. (Later he tells her to destroy the tape -- otherwise, the temptation to hear it will always be with her.)

Personally, I was deeply grateful for that restraint. The death of Huguenard, who may not have wanted to be there at all that October, was a tragedy, while the death of Treadwell was something he half-expected, an event he looked for with both dread and longing. But both of them still deserve some shreds of dignity. Herzog speculates that Timothy Treadwell -- like almost everything about him, the name was a fiction -- crossed an invisible boundary no human should cross, in search of primordial fusion with the animal world. He got it, and how. Herzog wants us to see a deluded nobility in this quest. Treadwell's flawed dreams were, in the end, all too human.

"Grizzly Man" opens Aug. 12 in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle, with more cities to follow.

"Pretty Persuasion": Greek tragedy at Ridgemont High
At first glance, and even at second, Marcos Siega's debut feature "Pretty Persuasion" belongs to one of the most familiar genres in American movies: the high-school comedy, in particular the kind that portrays California teenage girls as oversexed Machiavellian ice bitches plotting their own rise to supremacy and the downfall of everyone around them. I mean, that is what "Pretty Persuasion" is about -- 15-year-old Kimberly (Evan Rachel Wood) manipulates her two friends in a spurious sexual assault charge against an awkward English teacher (Ron Livingston) who's clearly got the hots for her.

But most such movies have to wind up with some kind of sweetness and redemption, or at the very least teach a useful social lesson. Skander Halim's screenplay has a far-reaching ruthlessness, along with a grand ambition to turn a movie that starts as dark satire into something approaching Greek tragedy. (Halim has said he thought the script was not producible.) If the resulting film doesn't work equally well at all levels, Wood (who starred in "Thirteen") gives an astonishing performance that pushes it most of the way there. Kimberly does terrible, unforgivable things, but she's not the misogynist-fantasy caricature found in so many movies like this. Instead, she's a complicated, selfish and wounded girl who has learned precisely the wrong lessons from the world around her.

People are going to notice "Pretty Persuasion," first and foremost, for its almost gleeful presentation of teen sexuality and other hot-button topics. Siega seems determined -- maybe a little too determined -- to get his movie banned in the Bible Belt. I don't know which will shock the shockable worst: the scene where Kimberly performs oral sex on a babealicious female TV reporter (Jane Krakowski) or the one where an earnest Muslim girl (Adi Schnall) in a hijab barfs up her just-eaten Twinkies at Kimberly's direction. That's without mentioning the anal-sex scene, the offensive joke about how Arab men get their wives pregnant, Kimberly's boorish dad (James Woods) with his anti-Semitic tirades and phone-sex addiction, or Kimberly's reenactments of sex acts between her tennis-bimbo stepmom (Jaime King) and a dog.

Some of this is pretty funny on a juvenile level, as is the movie's rather heavy-handed satire. "Oh my God, Troy is a poet!" moons Kimberly's dim-but-pretty best friend, Brittany (Elisabeth Harnois). "Everything that comes out of his mouth is an iambic pentagram!" Kimberly herself is dating a jocked-out dude who keeps trying to tell those old jokes about why beer is better than a woman, but can't remember the punch lines. (Beer can't talk; it's always wet, etc.) Apparently he's good at cunnilingus when he remembers to take his retainer out. (Kimberly always manages to avoid reciprocating.)

Wood manages to rise above this landscape of horror and delight, depending on your perspective. Kimberly's grand scheme for vengeance against Mr. Anderson (Ron Livingston) is out of all proportion to his creepiness -- though he is a creep -- but conforms to the soul-deadening, social-Darwinist landscape she sees around her. She's like Medea or Lady Macbeth, packed into a hot bod and a tight little skirt and parachuted into Beverly Hills.

Wood has the ramrod carriage and hauteur of a mighty heroine mixed with the heart-melting beauty of an ingenue. The obvious points of comparison for "Pretty Persuasion" are "Heathers" and "Election," and it's worth noting that both of those dark-hearted teen classics gave birth to stars. This one will too.

"Pretty Persuasion" opens Aug. 12 nationwide.

"The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till": New light on an American nightmare
It was shot on video for next to no money with no particular cinematic verve, but Keith A. Beauchamp's "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till" is a vital documentary in the truest sense, with the emphasis on document. Revisiting the notorious case of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy from Chicago who was viciously tortured and killed by whites while visiting a rural Mississippi town in 1955 -- for the "crime" of wolf-whistling a white woman -- Beauchamp does more than bring this tragic and heroic story to a new generation.

After an eight-year investigation, Beauchamp actually found new witnesses, and at least one new suspect, in the massively publicized crime that shocked the nation and galvanized the civil rights movement. The outlines of the case have never been in doubt: J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant (the whistlee's husband) came to the house of Till's grandfather in Money, Miss., on Aug. 28, 1955, and kidnapped the boy at gunpoint. With the help of an uncertain number of others, they took Till to a nearby barn, where they beat and tortured him savagely, ending by shooting him through the head. Then they tied him to a 70-pound electric fan and threw him into the Tallahatchie River, where his body was found some days later.

Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, is the star of this film just as she was a composed and determined figure after the murder a half-century ago. (She died in 2003, as Beauchamp was completing the movie.) She seems to have understood immediately that in death her son had become a powerful emblem of racial injustice, and that his suffering might help save others. The potential biblical symbolism of Emmett's murder was not lost on her: "I know that without bloodshed there can be no redemption," she tells Beauchamp in the film.

Till-Mobley had her son buried in an open casket, and mourners (including national civil-rights members and clergy) flooded to the funeral from all parts of the country. Till's horribly disfigured face, which you see in the film, became an unforgettable testimonial to the brutality and evil of Southern white supremacy. I won't detail the scope of his injuries; suffice it to say that the sadism of the attack -- performed by two apparently unexceptional members of the local white community -- went beyond any possible notion of revenge, however misguided and cruel, into what can only be called insanity.

Stanley Nelson's "The Murder of Emmett Till" aired two years ago on PBS, but while Beauchamp's film is more crudely made, he has been working this turf longer and gotten far closer to the story than Nelson ever does. Beauchamp's interviewees -- one of whom speaks anonymously, with her face in shadows -- include Till's family members and close friends. Some were in the house when he was taken, while other locals saw and heard the beatings and point to potential collaborators, still living and never before identified.

Largely as a result of Beauchamp's film, the Justice Department reopened the Till case last year, in the hopes that some who were involved can still be brought to justice. (To no one's surprise, Bryant and Milam were acquitted by an all-white jury in 1955. They later confessed their guilt to a Look magazine reporter, at a price of $4,000. Both have since died.) It's too little and far too late for Emmett Till, but Beauchamp's intimate history reminds us that even iconic events like this tragedy happen to real people, and belong not just to history textbooks but also living memory.

"The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till" opens Aug. 17 at Film Forum in New York. A national release will follow, with details to be determined.

Fast forward: A film you can't stop watching (in which nothing happens), and a wistful travelogue of post-9/11 Manhattan
Jun Ichikawa's haunting "Tony Takitani" is quite a short movie, barely 75 minutes, and the camera spends much of that time creeping around walls, edging toward Ichikawa's characters and then stopping, at some odd distance and some odd angle, as if embarrassed to draw too close. More than most contemporary Japanese directors, Ichikawa is heir to the tradition of the great Yasujiro Ozu, with its tremendous technical rigor and emotional restraint. There are some postmodern touches in "Tony Takitani" that Ozu would never have tried, but as in his movies, Ichikawa is out to capture tragedy in very few brush strokes, without wallowing in it.

Even the casting is minimal: Issei Ogata plays both the supremely lonely title character and his ne'er-do-well father, a jazz musician who thought giving his son an American name in 1946 was a good move. The reed-slender Rie Miyazawa plays both Eiko, the surpassingly lovely wife Tony loses (in large part because of her designer-clothing addiction), and Hisako, the girl he hires to impersonate Eiko after her death. Already that makes "Tony Takitani" sound as if it has more plot, or at least more action, than it does. Most of the story is told in voice-over, with the characters almost motionless in the frame; only occasionally do the actors actually speak their lines, and still less often to each other.

If that sounds insufferable, well, this is one of those movies where you either give yourself up to its rhythms or give up entirely. It took me a few minutes to get used to it, but I found "Tony Takitani" absorbing and loaded with emotional power. Ichikawa's compositions are lovely, Ryuichi Sakamoto's music is haunting and the mode of contemplative stillness is contagious. "Tony Takitani" is adapted from a story by the great Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, and as in much of his work the combination of sadness and humor is impossible to summarize. Ichikawa's film is more a tribute to Murakami than an attempt to capture him in a bottle, but for those so inclined it's 75 minutes beautifully spent. (Now playing in New York; opens Aug. 12 in San Francisco, Aug. 26 in Los Angeles and San Diego, Sept. 9 in Philadelphia and Sept. 30 in Chicago, Dallas and Sacramento, Calif., with other cities to follow.)

Finally, I want to thank New York independent filmmaker Art Jones for sending me "Lustre," his odd but often lovely spiritual odyssey through the streets of Manhattan in the year following Sept. 11, 2001. Anyone who lived through that year of grief in New York will identify strongly with the luminescent emotion of this film, and it stars Victor Argo, a classic gravel-voiced New York character actor who appeared in "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver" (among many other films), in his final role.

Jones' filmmaking is often both beautiful and daring -- he shoots a scene on a billboard walkway over Canal Street and on top of one of the Brooklyn Bridge's towers -- and his story offers brave and intriguing possibilities. Argo stars as an aging loan shark named Hugo, who rhapsodizes eloquently about the edgy, brawling city he sees disappearing beneath yuppie condo developments and chain stores (I feel his pain) and then begins to have murky spiritual revelations -- angels' voices, apparitions, magical powers, the Virgin in a coffee stain, that kind of thing.

Does this all hang together? Not really. "Lustre" lurches uneasily from satire to sentimentality and back again, and after the bewildering eschatological ending I wasn't sure whether we had reached the Second Coming or just a guy having a breakdown. But if the storytelling is murky, the filmmaking is stunning and, more important, the passion for this city -- its people and landscape -- is pure. (Opens Aug. 17 at the Pioneer Theater in New York.)

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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