Beyond the Multiplex

A lunatic and a housewife get it on in 1950s London. Plus: A wall grows around Israel, and William Eggleston refuses to talk.


Andrew O'Hehir
August 26, 2005 12:00AM (UTC)

"It's difficult to work out how to be populist," Scottish director David Mackenzie tells me over an early-evening cocktail, "without sacrificing some of the things that make your work interesting."

This maxim ought to be embossed on fake wood-grain plastic plaques and hung over the entrances of every film school, every video store, every downtown movie theater where partisans of the slightly hip gather to drink decent coffee and partake of the cultural fringe. Mackenzie ought to find out more about this in years to come; his 1950s period romance "Asylum" is both dark and sleek, a mixture of rapturous cinematography, hot sex and unforgiving fatalism. It's not really the kind of movie Hollywood wants to make, but it might be exactly the kind of movie that studio executives want to see -- and then pretend, at cocktail parties, that they want to make.

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In the so-called golden years of American film, Hollywood thrived on importing foreign directors (from Lang to Lubitsch to Wilder) and enfolding them, more or less, in the studio production system. That system may be long dead, but Hollywood still tries to reanimate itself with periodic infusions of new blood from overseas or from the cultural underground. Subtract Peter Jackson, David Fincher, the Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman duo, John Woo, Paul Verhoeven and the entire post-Tarantino indie insurgence, and you've lost most of the watchable American films of the last 15 years.

Based on "Asylum" and his previous film "Young Adam," Mackenzie is a meticulous craftsman with an eye for beauty and a hardened twist to his moral vision. To keep making films, he says, he knows that "one has to deal with economics and one has to deal with the audience," and he'd like to do that without sacrificing moral complexity and individual vision. Maybe he's the right kind of guy to make interesting, big-budget movies -- and maybe he'll get chewed up and disappear (are you out there somewhere, Christopher Nolan?) or gradually morph into a hack endlessly aping his own pseudo-original gestures (telegram for Tim Burton!). Whichever way it flows, his should be a career to watch.

We've got another Hollywood calling-card this week, but this one was so obvious I didn't enjoy it as much. Genre fans should dig Erik Van Looy's thriller "The Memory of a Killer," which is pretty much the movie Ridley Scott or Michael Mann would make if they had one-sixteenth of their normal budget -- and were stuck in Belgium. Two fascinating and frustrating documentaries round out this week's tour of indieville, and both are absolute musts for those willing to wrestle a little. Simone Bitton's "Wall" surveys the boundary fence separating Israeli Jews from Palestinian Arabs with as much dispassion as it can muster, while Michael Almereyda's "William Eggleston in the Real World" does its best to capture the enigmatic cult figure who revolutionized American photography.

"Asylum": Lady Chatterley goes to the loony bin
I've been describing "Asylum" to people as a long-lost Hitchcock film they've never seen before, but I don't mean that director David Mackenzie is one of those Brian De Palma types who just rips off sequences from "Strangers on a Train" and thinks it's cool. If there are moments of homage in Mackenzie's adaptation of Patrick McGrath's mental-hospital Gothic melodrama, the combination of lush, romantic spectacle and moral cruelty never feels forced or phony.

These days, most movies about sexual affairs bounce the two people off each other like particles in a supercollider; we get a hackneyed meaningful glance or two, some stylized neck-smooching and back-arching, and then those awful fuzzy soft-porn montages that pass for eroticism. Mackenzie takes his time getting Stella (the ever-delicious Natasha Richardson) and the obviously dangerous Edgar (Marton Csokas) together. For one thing, Edgar is an inmate in the mental hospital where Stella's plump, lobster-red husband (Hugh Bonneville) is a doctor. In fact, Edgar's in there because he beat his previous wife to death with a hammer -- but he's now sufficiently "cured" that he's been hired to repair Stella's greenhouse.

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It's the late '50s in rural England; suffice it to say that it's not OK for a doctor's wife to bonk the nutso-killer hired help, no matter how smolderingly handsome he is and no matter how languorously long-legged and sexually frustrated she happens to be. The on-screen connection between Richardson and Csokas -- a rising star from New Zealand with something of Russell Crowe and something of William Holden about him -- crackles like a summer thunderstorm from the moment they lay eyes on each other, and Mackenzie allows it to play out gradually. Their first breathless coupling in the unfinished greenhouse feels like what it is, a reckless, self-destructive act of compulsion. (The film's sex scenes, by the way, are vigorous, physical and plentiful.)

Their misguided love affair -- and there's no doubt that their connection is spiritual as well as physical -- will destroy almost everything and everyone in their lives. "Asylum" is a rich story, loaded with narrative ironies, that careens from the depressing backwoods asylum to the back alleys of London, where Edgar was a proto-bohemian sculptor before killing his wife. Don't go expecting redemption for either of these characters; you surely won't want any for Peter Cleave (Ian McKellen), the Machiavellian shrink who watches all this from above like an unusually manipulative deity. But if you're tough enough for this lush but hardhearted melodrama, it's one of the year's signature film experiences.

After a New York screening of "Asylum," Mackenzie and I adjourned to a bar that would actually permit him to chain-smoke Marlboro Lights, in defiance of local law. (I'm not telling.) After establishing that we both have toddlers the same age, and hence haven't slept properly in more than a year, we moved on to the film.

Let's talk about the incredible screen chemistry between Natasha Richardson and Marton Csokas. That isn't something that just happens, is it? I mean, you see them together and you say, "Wow. These people just can't be stopped. They are going to hump like rabid bunnies."

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I'm really pleased that you think the chemistry is there, because that's what the movie's about. I think it is something you have to create. I mean, they're both great actors, so they're able to do a lot. It's partly acting, it's partly directing, it's partly editing. Obviously it's the meat of the story -- he's somebody who she's just drawn to. Of course, it's casting too -- Marton is quite a presence, isn't he?

Yeah, that guy's going to be a serious lady-killer. I know he's been in other films, but I've never noticed him before. Was there a point when you knew you had one of those actors who just commands the screen?

When I met him, yeah. [Laughter.] He's been around for a while, but he's relatively new to this level of filmmaking. As soon as I saw the first lot of rushes -- dailies, as you call them over here -- I thought, "Well, we've got something here." It was very exciting. It was even there in makeup tests; we hadn't started shooting yet. It was really powerful and immediate.

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OK, so "Asylum" is a story about sexual obsession. But that really doesn't define it entirely, or even essentially. For you, what else is it about?

It's complicated. Some of it is about consequences, and I was really interested in that aspect of the story: How an act, or a force that runs inside human beings, can have all these ramifications. Some of it's about civilizing influences versus human instinct. You've got the walled asylum as a metaphor for that. What happens when you transgress those boundaries? Strangely enough, I think it's also about love. Although it comes from sex, it is actually all about love. Maybe it's not the happiest ending -- I don't know how much we want to give away -- but everyone in the story suffers for their love in some way.

One of the frameworks for this story is psychiatry, the science that's supposed to tell us about our minds. But nobody in this story knows their own minds, or can control them.

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That's right. We were careful not to delve too deeply into the psychiatric details. Patrick McGrath, who wrote this novel, actually grew up at Broadmoor, a famous asylum in England. He told me that when his father took over at Broadmoor, there was only one other psychiatrist for 600 seriously ill patients. They were uninterested in treating them, really. The weird thing is that at that point in time psychiatry was much more about Freud -- all about sex -- and nowadays it's more about drug administration than anything else. But we wanted to avoid mental hospital clichés. Even the interviews that Ian McKellen has with patients are really opportunities for the characters to engage one another, rather than therapy sessions.

Capturing the period, right on the cusp of the 1960s, is essential to this film. I know that Paramount wanted to make this a contemporary story at one point, which wouldn't have made any sense. As in your previous picture, "Young Adam," you've captured that slightly depressing, moldy-feeling postwar Britain. Has that become your specialty?

"Young Adam" was set in 1954, and this film is set in 1959 and 1960, so we were trying to show a little bit of difference between the two. When Stella goes to live in the London warehouse [with Edgar], you can see there's a proto-beatnik vibe there. In terms of the costumes, we start with all this stiff stuff, whites, creams and dull colors. Then we move to reds and deeper textures; her hair comes down. We were trying to suggest that the times they are a-changing, a little bit. Later in the film, of course, she has to go back to that world of postwar trauma.

One of the tragedies here is that if Stella had been able to hang on for a few more years, swinging London was waiting for her! Nobody would care if she screwed the studly gardener, right? Everyone was doing it.

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If she had been born just five years later, everything would have been fine. That was one of the main reasons why you couldn't transplant this story from its period. I think the 1950s is quite an interesting period, actually. It's far enough away that you can observe it comparatively dispassionately, but it's close enough that you can have all these reflections on our own time and our own experiences.

You said earlier that your next film, "Hallam Foe," is about a child voyeur. Is that set in the '50s too?

No, it's contemporary. I'm a bit scared in a way. In a period world, you know you can't pan your camera two inches the other way, because you'll see modern cars and billboards. So you design it really carefully, to create this jigsaw puzzle you can edit together to make your film. Without that restriction, it's going to be interesting to figure out how to design the film. I can point the camera anywhere. It forces you to aestheticize yourself, I suppose.

Well, "Asylum" has a very particular aesthetic. It's both bleak and beautiful. Your color palette is very restricted, but the film is a lush visual experience despite that. Are there specific films of the past that inspired you? Or specific works of art?

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That's very difficult to answer. I mean, I'm reasonably well educated. I've seen quite a lot of films and I know a reasonable amount about art. But there doesn't seem to be a major target; I don't say, "I want it to look like this." I work very closely with my D.P. [Giles Nuttgens], but the frames in the film are basically my frames. I come from a photography background, so I guess I'm fairly instinctive about beautifying or not beautifying, about trying to find a reflective image. I haven't rationalized a method. It's basically instinctive.

Let's just note that you do have a scene where a beautiful blonde in a '50s gown climbs up a bell tower, possibly with the intention of jumping off.

Well, yeah. It's impossible not to think of the films of that period when you're making a film set in that period. In terms of hair and costume and everything, something like "Vertigo" is always in place. I was worried about that tower sequence being too obvious an homage. It got to a point where we even thought Stella was going to have to go to the cinema and watch "Vertigo," to show the audience we knew our references. I decided against that.

A good decision. Then there's the toughest scene in the whole film. Let's see if we can talk about it without giving it away. Stella does something unforgivable, through her self-absorption, and an innocent person suffers terribly as a result.

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That was the scene we talked about the most. It was a scene we could really have turned into melodrama, and I tried my hardest to make it as unmitigated as possible. There's tremendous temptation to subjectify a scene like that -- to show it from her point of view. I shot some footage like that, and then I decided it was better to put the audience in an agonizing situation: "Do something! Do something!" I still don't know whether it works or not -- I don't have any degree of objectivity -- but I feel the integrity of what we did.

"Asylum" is now playing in most major metropolitan areas, with a wider release to follow.

"The Memory of a Killer": "CSI" goes to Antwerp
Belgian film has always been an odd scene. Given the nation's bitterly divided cultural heritage, its films can mostly be divided into the almost-French category and the almost-Dutch category. Abort those angry e-mails, loyal Flemings and Walloons -- I realize that's an oversimplification. (I look forward to seeing Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's "The Child," winner of this year's Palme d'Or at Cannes.) The point is that while Belgium is an affluent European country, it's also a small and unglamorous one that remains culturally and politically overshadowed by its neighbors.

I don't know that Erik Van Looy's thriller "The Memory of a Killer" will do a lot to change that, but it admirably adapts the American neo-noir tradition to the rainy, gritty surroundings of Antwerp, and that's a distinctively Belgian achievement. We've got a brainy, hipster cop (Koen De Bouw) somewhat in the Vincent D'Onofrio "Criminal Intent" tradition, his regular-guy partner (Werner De Smedt), and their worthy adversary, an aging contract killer (Jan Decleir) who's battling an odd affliction.

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Actually, the film's Flemish title translates as "The Alzheimer Case." One can imagine why the American distributor didn't care for that, but the current English title leaves us guessing about what's wrong with Decleir's Angelo Ledda, a remorseless but increasingly uncertain hit man who's pursuing a private vendetta against a gang of powerful pedophiles. Ledda leads the two detectives gradually toward the center of corruption, while they think they're just chasing him -- and he keeps losing his own trail, despite the experimental pills he takes and the "Memento"-style hints he scribbles on his own arm.

As lantern-jawed De Bouw and leonine Decleir orbit each other like competing, powerful planets, the story is compelling if predictable. "The Memory of a Killer" is wonderfully acted and energetically filmed, and in fact it partly echoes a real-life pedophilia scandal that rocked Belgian society to its foundations in the '90s. Van Looy certainly proves that you can make police procedurals with plenty of action on minuscule budgets (by American standards). Overall, though, I found the film a puzzling mixture of convincing local atmospherics and pretentious imported grandeur. The next time he shoots neon signs on ruined buildings, or handsome faces upturned in the driving rain, it might be on the back streets of L.A.

"The Memory of a Killer" opens Aug. 26 in New York, with a national release to follow.

"Wall": Finding hope in a symbol of hopelessness
Simone Bitton is a Moroccan-born Jew who spent her teen years in Israel and now lives in Paris. Perhaps this is the perfect background for making a documentary in the Middle East; she crosses borders and melts into populations easily. When someone she approaches in her documentary "Wall" asks, a bit nervously, "Hebrew or Arabic?" she responds, "As you like." Her film about the notorious wall that now separates the Jewish and Arab populations of Israel and the West Bank is an important human and artistic testament -- a calm meditation on something no one can consider calmly.

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Actually, Bitton has written and spoken about "Wall" in strident political language, which I almost don't want to mention. I suppose a point of view becomes clear if you stick with this patient, contemplative film, or at least we come to understand that it was born out of pain and anger. But information and commentary are minimal in the footage itself; characteristically, Bitton just plants her camera and lets us watch events unfold in real time, in the middle distance.

We see, for instance, a parade of Palestinian workers scrambling over a low panel in the wall in the early morning, on their way to jobs inside the Jewish world. We see a bored and irritated Israeli soldier at a checkpoint, dealing with people who lack the right paperwork, who refuse to stay in line, who are trying to enter or leave in the wrong direction. Sometimes the events are barely events: Workers slowly fit two of the wall's cement slabs together as a radio blares an Arab pop hit; a girl misses the bus in front of a section that's been painted to look like trees, sky and scenery.

There's also material that more closely resembles journalism. Bitton interviews an Israeli government spokesman, eager to discuss the wall as an engineering achievement. (The cost is close to $2 million per kilometer; the whole thing will cost about a billion dollars.) She talks to an apolitical West Bank suburbanite in designer shades, who offers to host Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas at his house, and a lifelong kibbutznik who sees the wall as an act of Jewish suicidal desperation. Casual bigotry is displayed on both sides, as well as heartbreaking compassion; no solutions are proposed.

But the real strength of "Wall" -- winner of several major festival awards, including a special jury prize at Sundance -- is not ideas but images. It demonstrates, more clearly than a thousand magazine articles, how intimately these two groups live side by side, in mutual distrust and terror, on this beautiful and sacred desert landscape. Bitton never expresses an opinion on whether the wall, and the system it embodies, dehumanizes and humiliates Palestinians (as it does) or whether Israelis' fear of deranged zealots is legitimate (as it is). "Issues" of that kind merely complicate the picture, which is, as a psychiatrist in the film puts it, that of a society where extremism and madness have become normal, of a Holy Land conquered by the devil.

"Wall" opens Aug. 26 in New York and Minneapolis, Sept. 9 in Chicago, and Sept. 23 in Los Angeles, with further engagements to be announced.

"William Eggleston in the Real World": Let's get drunk and not talk about art
There's an anecdote in Calvin Tomkins' great biography of Marcel Duchamp in which the poet William Carlos Williams describes an evening he once spent with Duchamp and friends at the Manhattan apartment of Walter Arensberg, a famous art-scene hangout. As if trying to get in with the cool kids, Williams took an opportunity to tell Duchamp he liked a certain painting of his. Duchamp turned to him and said, "Do you?", apparently with withering sarcasm. "I realized then and there," Williams remembered, "that there wasn't a possibility of my ever saying anything to anyone in that gang from that moment to eternity."

Michael Almereyda now feels Williams' pain. Almereyda didn't exactly fall off the turnip truck from Podunk; he's the director of the cult vampire film "Nadja" and a 2000 version of "Hamlet" that reimagines the Bard's classic as a teen soap. But his effort to make a definitive documentary about William Eggleston, the notoriously laconic Southern photographer who remade his medium in the '70s and '80s, is almost utterly defeated by its subject's sardonic stonewalling.

"William Eggleston in the Real World" is a fascinating document of total frustration, reaching its apotheosis when Almereyda gets Eggleston alone, and drunk (not, it seems, an infrequent condition for him), in a Memphis barbecue restaurant. The director starts making effusive, if banal, comments about photography -- it captures moments that are gone, making them permanent, and so on. Eggleston deflects it all, looking as always like your college English professor on a dangerous bender. He lights cigarette after cigarette, saying, "That just means nothing to me" or "I just never thought about it," all the while refusing to look into the camera. Finally he shrugs, almost imperceptibly, and says, "What is there to talk about?"

Photography buffs will want to see this, whether they venerate Eggleston's work or hate it -- and the latter cause has pretty much been defeated. His deliberately uncomposed, color-saturated portraits of random bits of decaying Americana may have seemed shocking at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976, but as Almereyda observes, they were clearly in the tradition of Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander and Robert Frank, which might today be described as the dominant strain of American photography. We see enough of Eggleston's pictures in the film to remember how powerful and how necessary they were.

The man himself is another thing entirely. One might describe the Eggleston we see here as a certain type, the hermetic artist whose superficial politeness can't hide a hard kernel of protective hostility. You might say Eggleston is two types at once, since he's also an almost classic eccentric Southern artist, a lush and womanizer who masks his peculiarities beneath a guise of conservative conformity. He's part Duchamp or Samuel Beckett in one direction, part Faulkner in the other. Is he likable? Yes, in a way. But he also seems inscrutably wounded and, like many other important artists, completely unable or unwilling to discuss how and why he does what he does.

Almereyda clearly went into this with the idea of making a film matched in some way to Eggleston's aesthetic. He follows the artist around with a hand-held digital video camera, accompanying him on shoots in rural Kentucky, on drinking binges and assignations (Eggleston has been married for 40 years, but it seems to be one of those marriages), to museum shows in Los Angeles and award ceremonies in New York. Eggleston remains amused and uncommunicative, precariously balancing his cigarettes and gracefully wielding his glasses of bourbon. Almereyda won't shut up; he asks Eggleston endless questions and natters on in voice-over. Honestly, what the hell is there to talk about?

"William Eggleston in the Real World" opens Aug. 31 at Film Forum in New York.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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