Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Video Phile

AUGUST 4, 1997: 

***1/2 Flirt (1995, written and directed by Hal Hartley) -- Anyone who is familiar with Hal Hartley knows that he has one of the most distinctive cinematic styles of any American filmmaker. His dialogue is formal, and he demands from his regular stable of actors and actresses not so much acting as near-deadpan recitation, which lends to his work an air of theatrical distance and abstraction more common among European auteurs. If you're unfamiliar with Hartley, just imagine Bergman's The Seventh Seal meeting Altman's Short Cuts.

Flirt, Hartley's fifth full-length feature, adds a twist, however, by abandoning straight narrative and eventually abandoning an American setting all together. Seemingly taking a clue from Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth, Flirt is composed of three vignettes set in New York, Berlin, and Tokyo, respectively. Rather than using Jarmusch's device of different stories unfolding across the world at the same time, however, Hartley's vignettes show the same story being played out in three different settings -- dialogue and all.

The first vignette -- set in New York and featuring Hartley regulars, including the always perfect Martin Donovan as a jilted husband -- introduces the love-triangle-plus-gun plot in the director's typical dry, offbeat style. Through the course of the next two sequences -- shot not only in different locales, but at different times and with different crews -- the original is warped by the changes in character and setting. A man deciding between two women in New York becomes a man deciding between two men in Berlin and a woman deciding between two men (one of whom is Hartley as Hartley) in Tokyo.

As a Greek chorus of German construction workers observes in the Berlin sequence, the film is a failure. Its apparent failure is in the fact that as the same plot is repeated, it alters gradually; dialogue has to be shifted around and ostensibly identical roles diverge and even reverse. It is a failure, however, that demonstrates the power of setting and character to command the plot rather than the other way around. Coming from a director who might be accused of being overly consumed by style and atmosphere, Flirt comes off as a wry justification of method. -- Jim Hanas


** Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1996, directed by Alan Rudolph) -- It's too bad Dorothy Parker is not around to see this film. She would certainly find something appropriately acerbic, succinct, and gleefully cruel to say about all personages involved in the production of this quasi-biographical train wreck.

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle purports to examine the life of the famous writer Dorothy Parker and her fellow literary companions of the Algonquin Round Table. While Jennifer Jason Leigh does a passable job playing a drunk, her insufferable accent makes the audience wonder if it was more than the glasses that kept boys from making passes.

The script for this film has holes that average-sized children could stick their heads through. Sporadic jumps in the film's action (from 1920s New York to later dates in Mrs. Parker's life) represent a film technique with potential that the director of this piece, Alan Rudolph, wields like a gorilla with a dental drill.

While the script wins no awards, the costumes are simply fabulous. Their splendid colors stand out against the dirty, bustling streets and blend beautifully with the Hotel Algonquin's restaurant, where the writers speak easy (and critically).

The beginning of the film is vibrant and enjoyable as the players fire lines at each other like automatic rifles; however, the dull pace of the end of the film more than spoils the exuberance of its outset.

This film fails to show Dorothy Parker in an appropriate light. She is a sympathetic character for 45 seconds, after which the audience begins screaming at the screen, pleading with her to get over whatever it is that has her crying all the time. Her depression and her alcoholism are not portrayed in a believable way, nor is her fascination with the uptight Mr. Benchley (Campbell Scott) -- the Ashley Wilkes of her life.

If you want to learn about Dorothy Parker, read some of her writing. If you want to become Dorothy Parker, watch this film. It just may send you into a numbing depression, give you writer's block, and drive you to drink. -- Elizabeth Lemond







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