Beyond the Multiplex

Gandolfini sings! Sarandon dances! John Turturro's musical "Romance & Cigarettes" is the most original movie you won't see this year. Plus: Moonwalks, gay Israelis and more.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 6, 2007 11:00AM (EDT)

I almost don't want to know what combination of malice, whimsy, stupidity and greed has led to the fate of John Turturro's musical "Romance & Cigarettes," which is scheduled to open in New York this week -- but not currently scheduled to play anywhere else in North America. It premiered in 2005 at the Venice and Toronto film festivals, and since then has played all over Europe. It's played before Finnish, Greek, Israeli, Turkish and Hungarian audiences, but United Artists apparently believes that Americans outside Manhattan are too dumb to appreciate it.

I suppose the film has "marketing issues." It's a peculiar blend of baroque fantasy and working-class realism; it veers from erotic farce to wrenching domestic drama and back again; it's a musical comedy without a conventional happy ending; it's a love story about the most difficult kind of love, between two people who've been together almost forever and hurt each other almost irreparably. But all those things are also what make "Romance & Cigarettes" so great. It's the most original picture by an American director I've seen this year, and also the most delightful.

When the movie's protagonist, a softhearted, skirt-chasing New York bridge maintenance worker named Nick Murder (played by James Gandolfini, who apparently is well known for some TV show), comes out of his Queens bungalow for a smoke, after a fight with his wife, at first he just stands there staring into the middle distance, like guys all over the world throughout eternity. Then he comes down off the porch, twirls around a streetlight with surprising grace, and starts to sing along with Engelbert Humperdinck's "A Man Without Love." Accompanied by a chorus of singing and dancing sanitation workers, kids on bicycles and random passersby.

It's one of the most exhilarating moments in recent American cinema, and "Romance & Cigarettes" is loaded with them. Susan Sarandon, who plays Nick's long-suffering wife, performs her own dynamite singalong version of Dusty Springfield's "Piece of My Heart" (along with a church choir led by Eddie Izzard). Christopher Walken, as her Elvis-worshiping cousin, performs an all-singing, all-dancing dramatization of Tom Jones' infidelity-and-murder saga "Delilah" that compresses the over-amped pathos of a Puccini opera into three minutes. And don't get me started on Kate Winslet's performance as the foulmouthed, oversexed lingerie-shop girl who threatens to wreck the Murder marriage.

There's more hilarity, more sense of risk and more sheer filmmaking joy in "Romance & Cigarettes" than in roughly the last 157 indie pictures I've sat through. One way or another, Turturro's picture will make its own reputation, as eccentric works of genius always do. Some viewers will be thrilled, as I was, and I'm sure others will find its combination of sweetness and acidity bewildering. (For a double bill of semi-experimental musicals, combine "Romance & Cigarettes" with Francis Ford Coppola's 1982 "One From the Heart.") But however you find this remarkable film, you're not too likely to find it at a theater near you.

A happier fate awaits "In the Shadow of the Moon," which may well be the most exciting documentary of the year so far. I guess it took a British director, David Sington, to capture the story of the dozen American men who walked on the moon -- the only human beings in our species history yet to visit another celestial body. It's a mesmerizing and emotional film, and the moonwalkers turn out to be a wry, reflective and self-aware bunch, many of whom experienced their otherworldly voyage as a transcendent, life-changing event.

There are too many other films this week (and next) to cover in detail, as the autumnal deluge arrives. Quick notes follow on novelist-writer-director Paul Auster's "Inner Life of Martin Frost," Israeli hipster Eytan Fox's "The Bubble," and the rerelease of William Friedkin's legendary leather-bar odyssey "Cruising."

"Romance & Cigarettes": Singing garbagemen, wronged housewives and a lingerie vixen in a hallucinatory Queens opera
There's at least one point of continuity between the place where John Turturro lives now, on a peaceful, leafy street lined with gracious brownstones in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., and the place where he grew up, a few miles away in the working-class Rosedale district of Queens. Both neighborhoods lie directly under the flight path toward LaGuardia airport; as Turturro and I sat under a spreading old tree in his backyard on a lovely late-summer afternoon, jets flew overhead low enough that we could identify the airline by color.

Turturro's childhood in a crowded Italian-American household has shaped his entire acting career, which encompasses more than 70 film and television roles over 28 years. Whether he's playing a Jewish intellectual like the title character in the Coen brothers' "Barton Fink" or an ignorant pizza slinger like Pino in Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing," his characters are often New York archetypes, the kids or grandkids of immigrants with itchy mannerisms and something to prove to the world. His speaking voice has an old-school outer-borough purity you don't hear much anymore; the word "man" comes out as a two-syllable nasal diphthong, and "humor" is pronounced with a distinctive Y-sound at the beginning.

It's presumptuous to say this about somebody with such a long and varied career, but it seems to me that everything in Turturro's life and career has led up to "Romance & Cigarettes." It's a dazzling, bittersweet concoction, directed with a verve and confidence Turturro only hinted at in "Mac" and "Illuminata" (his two earlier directing efforts). If the roots of its story about a marriage gone sour lie deep in Turturro's childhood, I think only a filmmaker with the experience and perspective of a middle-aged family man could create something that's simultaneously so daring and so compassionate.

"One thing I do know," Turturro says, after finishing a sandwich brought to him by Katherine Borowitz, his wife of more than 20 years. "I know whence these people come. I grew up in a neighborhood like that, a neighborhood with all small houses, planes going overhead and a house full of music. Everybody in our neighborhood had marital strife, in different ways. I used to eavesdrop on my mom's conversations with her girlfriends, I heard a lot of things and I was very interested in the women's point of view. A lot of movies, you know, you've got one woman. We've got everybody from Mandy Moore to Mary-Louise Parker to Aida Turturro to Kate Winslet to Susan Sarandon. Those are powerful people." (Moore, Parker and Aida Turturro, John's cousin, perform a killer cover version of "I Want Candy.")

While the characters in "Romance & Cigarettes" burst into song at implausible moments, singing along (in voices of varying quality) with Tom Jones and James Brown and Bruce Springsteen, the emotions they're expressing are based in a gritty, largely realistic story about marital infidelity and the prodigious loneliness that can come with middle-aged married life. The story, says Turturro, came "from painful things I'd been sitting on for a long time. I hope I've expressed them in a way that's accessible and a way that's exhilarating, where you can mine the humor out of something horrible. I like all kinds of humor, but the humor that makes me laugh the most, by far, is when I recognize something."

Born in 1957, Turturro grew up in an Italian-Catholic milieu where divorce or separation were virtually unacceptable. "People stuck together," he says. "There were good marriages with problems, and then there were marriages where I don't know why they ever got married. But people didn't so much have the option of getting divorced, or just leaving, in large part because they were poor."

The marriage of Nick and Kitty Murder (played by Gandolfini and Sarandon without a hint of caricature) lies somewhere between troubled and why-the-hell-did-they-ever-get-hitched, especially after Nick meets Tula (Kate Winslet), a working-class sex kitten from the north of England who works in a lingerie shop and talks so dirty that even Nick is horrified. (You probably never expected to hear Winslet utter the line: "Give me that fuckin' fairy dust!" Yes, the context is exactly what you think.) Winslet works magic with this impossible character, finally turning a woman who seems like a projection of male fantasy into a flesh-and-blood creation, as beset by love and longing as Nick or Kitty are.

Expressing characters' internal emotional state through music is of course one of the oldest ideas in the dramatic arts, and Turturro is clearly borrowing from various sources, most notably from early 20th-century Italian opera and from the brilliant miniseries of English television writer Dennis Potter. "I mean, the Greek plays were serious plays that had music and dance and a chorus," he says. "Film hasn't always kept up with other art forms, with literature or painting or music. There are only so many stories to tell, and it's more a question of how you choose to tell it. We see so much fantasy in film, but there's not much fantasy that comes out of reality. Even the great folk tales, the greatest fairy tales, come out of reality. They burst out with imagination but they come from the ground."

The idea of dramatizing the way ordinary people use pop music -- the dramas we all create in our heads when we sing along with Elvis or Aretha in the shower -- came to Turturro after he inserted a brief fantasy sequence in his last film, "Illuminata." He described it to a friend, who suggested he watch Potter's legendary series "The Singing Detective," which features lip-synced versions of pop hits from the 1930s and '40s. As soon as he saw Potter's work, Turturro says, "I knew I didn't want to watch too much of it. When I read a book of interviews with him, I realized that he came from a poor background. He talks a lot about the power of popular music" for working-class people. "I didn't want to be beholden to his set of rules: He only used a certain period of music, he was very strict about it. But I realized that he was onto something."

"Romance & Cigarettes" establishes its own world and its own set of rules. Although the tragicomic mode is not so distant from Potter's, Turturro's film unfolds in a specifically American context, a vision of working-class New York that isn't quite now or any other precise moment, a vision suspended somewhere between the '60s and the '90s. Turturro says he listened to an Etta James song and read a Charles Bukowski poem every day before he started writing, and that strangely consonant combination defines his movie pretty well.

Emotion in Potter's world is very English, rather minimal and arch and restrained, whereas the sexuality and hatred and hilarity of "Romance & Cigarettes" are bigger than life. "I think this movie has the passions of opera," Turturro says. "Opera is a heightened form; somebody always dies, but there's also a lot of humor."

As that suggests, this film's final vision is a rueful and tragic one. Maybe that's what scared the studio off, rather than Winslet's randy one-liners or the chorus of firefighters cavorting to Buena Vista Social Club's "Cuarto de Tula" or James Gandolfini's not-too-bad singing voice. Whatever the reason, this is a once-in-a-lifetime underdog American classic, disgracefully shelved. Do whatever you have to do to see it. "There's all different mysteries in life: birth and death," Turturro told me. "But how people are able to love another person over a period of time, it's a real mystery. It's the biggest mystery around." Then he went back inside his lovely Brooklyn house to his wife and kids, while the jet planes kept on roaring overhead.

"Romance & Cigarettes" opens Sept. 7 at Film Forum in New York. Other engagements, and DVD release, should follow.

"In the Shadow of the Moon": The men who visited another world talk about God, death and the universe
I was a small child when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin got out of their lunar module and walked on the moon in the summer of 1969. But not too small to say something snotty when my father expressed amazement at what we were watching on his tiny J.C. Penney black-and-white television, which was wedged on the nightstand in my parents' bedroom.

It's too late to apologize now, Dad. But you were right, of course. David Sington's marvelous documentary "In the Shadow of the Moon" helps to recapture much of the awe and enthusiasm that Americans -- and, hell, everybody else too -- once felt about the space program. Sure, NASA's push to the moon was motivated largely by Cold War competition with the Soviet Union (and also by mystical loyalty to the murdered John F. Kennedy), but even if you believe it was a prodigious waste of money it was also an extraordinary accomplishment.

As Sington's film demonstrates, the handful of men who flew to the moon in glorified aluminum cans, using jury-rigged late-'60s computer technology that rarely worked as advertised, went there for reasons that can only seem noble and innocent -- and entirely too distant -- today. Halliburton didn't exist yet, so the whole project was actually run by the government, and not subcontracted at grossly inflated prices. There was nationalism involved, but not much jingoism, and the astronauts themselves quickly grasped that this was a human accomplishment, not merely an American one. There's heart-stoppingly beautiful footage from the various moon missions in "In the Shadow of the Moon," much of it never seen outside NASA archives, but Sington's central idea is much simpler and more profound than recapitulating a well-known history.

Most of the surviving astronauts have built subsequent careers out of their lunar voyages, and may feel sick of recounting their adventures. (Neil Armstrong, for instance, rarely participates in public events, and is not interviewed here.) Sington asks these men, now in or near the last chapters of their lives, to reflect on the private meanings of their unparalleled experiences: What did being on the moon actually feel like? What thoughts ran through their mind when they were up there? How do they feel about being the only humans ever to visit another world? How has it changed (if it has changed) their sense of life on Earth and its ultimate significance?

It's a fascinating excursion into the minds of a group of well-educated but necessarily pragmatic men who have shared an extraordinary, and literally transcendent, experience. Aldrin, an aeronautics wonk whose principal mission concerns were questions of orbit and trajectory, says that when he was on the moon, looking back at Earth, he observed that science and technology had gotten him there, but were utterly inadequate to what he was thinking and feeling.

If Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke found that his moon journey was a pathway toward Christian belief -- "My walk on the moon was a great adventure," he says, "but my walk with Jesus goes on forever" -- Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, himself an aeronautical engineer, went in a different direction. He describes an ecstatic, semi-Gnostic moment of mystical communion with the universe, when he realized that the molecules of his own body had been formed somewhere out there, in the engine of a distant star. (Neither the film nor its Web site mentions that Mitchell is now a well-known UFO believer and researcher into paranormal phenomena. If anybody can make you take those things seriously, he can.)

Most of the other astronauts interviewed fall somewhere between those extremes, but they all seem aware that the moon shots had a significance on Earth that nobody could quite grasp at the time. If nothing else, they gave us an acute and startling vision of our own world, so precious, fragile and beautiful compared to the sterile, desert-like moon. "Earthrise," the legendary photo snapped from Apollo 8 as it orbited the moon, became an image that changed history; it was and remains one of the environmental movement's most potent symbols.

Michael Collins, the charming and unassuming character who became famous as the man who accompanied Aldrin and Armstrong all the way to the moon on Apollo 11 without setting foot on the surface, claims he wasn't lonely during his solo orbit voyage around the fabled "dark side," traveling through pitch black and out of radio contact. He kept the lights on and music playing, he says. It did occur to him, though, that on that big blue globe there were 3 billion people, with two more on the dead gray world below him. On his side of the moon, he jokes, "There was just me -- and God knows what." It's a spine-tingling moment in a film full of wonders.

"In the Shadow of the Moon" opens Sept. 7 in New York and Los Angeles; Sept. 14 in Boston, Chicago and Washington; and Sept. 21 in Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, Hartford, Conn., Houston, New Haven, Conn., Philadelphia, San Francisco, San Jose, Calif., Seattle and Austin, Texas, with many more cities to follow.

Fast forward: Paul Auster's weird and whimsical "Martin Frost"; inside the "Bubble" of Tel Aviv; "Cruising" reconsidered; Germany faces "The Unknown Soldier"
On balance, Paul Auster should probably stick to novels, but his new film as a writer-director, "The Inner Life of Martin Frost," is an engaging diversion for literary-minded viewers, at least most of the way. The titular Mr. Frost (played by David Thewlis) is a New York literary novelist of limited fame, probably somewhere in the ballpark of, I don't know, Paul Auster. He's just finished a novel and has holed up alone at a friend's house somewhere in the unspecified country -- it could be Maine or Northern California, but is actually Portugal -- when a gamine, philosophy-reading French chick (Irène Jacob) turns up in his bed, entirely unknown and unexpected.

So far, so good, right? Not really. At first Claire claims to be the niece of the couple he's housesitting for, but that tale quickly comes unglued, and it's not clear who or what she really is. A literary stalker? An escaped character from an unfinished work? Simply a projection from Martin's unconscious? Whatever. Martin's banging out a new story with unprecedented speed, while Claire spends the day reading Kant before showing up to cook for him and sleep with him. No writer, presumably, could resist this combination.

Up to this point the film is handled with compression and wit, and the mysterious game being played between Claire and Martin has an ominous, erotic undertow. But just as Auster begins to untangle Claire's identity, Michael Imperioli (that would be Christopher from "The Sopranos") shows up as a tormented boiler repairman and would-be pulp novelist, and the whole project dissolves into a lesser Stephen King short story, but simultaneously more pretentious than that and played for guffaws. (Opens Sept. 7 in New York; other cities may follow.)

American-born Israeli director Eytan Fox makes bright, chatty, capable films that have captured a wide international audience by simultaneously engaging his nation's larger social and political anguish while capturing the particular and peculiar spirit of gay life in Israel. I have to say I approve of Fox's films (which include "Walk on Water" and "Yossi & Jagger") in theory more than I like them in practice. When one of the vampy gay characters in his new movie "The Bubble" refers to his straight female roommate as "Miss Israeli Carrie Bradshaw," I'm afraid the comment hits pretty close to home.

Actually, Fox does better in his serious dramatic mode than he does with light comedy, at least to my taste. When "The Bubble" follows the painful odyssey of Ashraf (Youssef Sweid), a gay Palestinian who's in the closet in his Hamas-friendly hometown but out as an undocumented immigrant in Tel Aviv, it's fascinating. When Ashraf hooks up with hunky blond Noam (Ohad Knoller) and lands in the chatty-Cathy household he shares with Yelli (Alon Freidmann) and aforementioned token-straight-gal Lulu (Daniella Wircer), there's an awful lot of posturing and preening and supposedly sophisticated sexual politics to go along with the "Friends"-style gags. One can only hope the real "bubble" of Tel Aviv's lefty, queer-friendly scene is groovier than this movie. Inevitably, politics and reality tear Noam and Ashraf apart, and then brings them back together in a climax that's shocking, daring and utterly out of step with the picture's light tone. (Opens Sept. 7 in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco; Sept. 28 in Boston, Palm Springs, Calif., and St. Louis; and Oct. 5 in Dallas, Denver, Gainesville, Fla., and Austin, Texas, with more cities to follow.)

Quite a different vision of gay life can be seen in William Friedkin's "Cruising," the leather-bar murder mystery starring Al Pacino that was the object of rowdy street protests during filming in 1980. It's long been unavailable on home video, and is being briefly rereleased on the way to a terrific DVD version. Viewed from almost three decades' distance, "Cruising" now looks like a masterly work of psychological disorientation, guilty only of a certain insensitivity -- in putting the most extreme imaginable example of gay sexual subculture into a mainstream film -- but innocent of any homophobic intention. Pacino's performance as the undercover cop who gets drawn into the leather underworld (how far he gets drawn in, we mostly have to guess) is extraordinary and sensitive, and the film's frank depiction of the pre-AIDS night world of gay Manhattan remains shocking. (Most of the nightclub extras were recruited from the local S/M leather scene, which was largely supportive of the film.) No one would get away with it now, or even try. (Opens in a limited rerelease Sept. 7 in New York and Los Angeles; the film's first DVD release, with illuminating extras, will follow.)

German director Michael Verhoeven has made a career out of exploring his nation's contemporary amnesia problem regarding World War II and the Holocaust, most notably in the 1990 feature "The Nasty Girl." His new documentary "The Unknown Soldier" digs into the recent controversy around the idea that German soldiers in general -- the Wehrmacht as a whole, not just the SS and the Gestapo -- were guilty of a widespread campaign of murder against Jews and other civilians in the occupied countries on the Eastern Front. This seems self-evident to anybody who's read even a little of the relevant history; the genocide would not have been possible without widespread collaboration, much of it from ordinary, non-Nazi German soldiers. As Verhoeven's film makes clear, many thousands of surviving German veterans, along with a disturbing quotient of their children and grandchildren, are much too eager to make excuses. (Opens Sept. 7 at the Quad Cinema in New York.)

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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