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Nashville Scene Book of the Deadly

Greenaway inks up another film

By Jim Ridley, Noel Murray, and Donna Bowman

AUGUST 25, 1997:  In his new movie The Pillow Book, Peter Greenaway cites the two reliable pleasures in life: "the pleasures of the flesh, and the pleasures of literature." And so they are--everywhere but in Greenaway's films. In The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, Greenaway viewed human sexuality with all the fondness and fervor of a clap specialist. In Prospero's Books, when he wasn't taking a leaf blower to the pages of The Tempest, he mangled the text with pissing cherubs, prancing nudes, and superimpositions of feet. Only a masochist would suffer this kind of pleasure.

That said, I confess a grudging respect for The Pillow Book, the least exasperating and most accessible of Greenaway's recent movies. (With Greenaway, "accessible" means the running time is only an era instead of an eternity.) The story, about a Japanese woman who uses her body as a canvas for calligraphy, bears Greenaway's familiar fixations with ritual, fetishism, and surfaces. But the movie doesn't seem as sadistic or as misanthropic as his earlier work. For the first time I can remember in a Greenaway film, there are moments of beauty that aren't undercut by cruelty or self-indulgence.

Greenaway has always used actors as screens made of skin; to some extent, that's what all filmmakers do. He carries this idea to its extreme in The Pillow Book, a movie whose heroine, Nagiko (Vivian Wu), exists only as a blank writing surface for male artists. Motivated by revenge against the publisher who destroyed her father, she finally seizes a brush and begins her own writing project--a work painted on the body of the publisher's young lover (Ewan McGregor, who's so likable and lively that he bursts his narrow role).

Greenaway has always had a striking graphic sense: His 1982 debut, The Draughtsman's Contract, a sort of 17th-century Blow-Up, made novel use of fixed frames. Since then he's tried to expand the visual possibilities of the screen by piling on smaller screens and plastering text over images. Sometimes the technique conveys the idea of montage as images in conflict--one picture may linger over subsequent events in a postcard-sized box onscreen. Sometimes it just looks like Windows 95. Both are true of The Pillow Book, which is spectacular and silly in equal measures. Graphically, the movie is often stunning, as when a solarized jet and a woman's silhouette blur into ideograms. Other times it's just laughably literal-minded. If someone mentions a child eating strawberries, then, by God, Greenaway's going to flash you a child eating strawberries.

Bad penmanship Vivian Wu, letting the ink dry in The Pillow Book. Photo by Mark Guillaumot.

But he still can't create believable emotions or people. Greenaway's characters may work fine as painting surfaces, but they have no interior life or independence that would arouse passion, and the director practically handles their couplings with tongs. Even the lurid revenge story becomes abstract and tedious--it's like a James M. Cain potboiler adapted for shadow puppets. Greenaway folds and shapes the screen in intriguing ways, but this whole exercise in cinematic origami is so airless and fussy that when it ended, I was left wondering exactly what he thinks the pleasures of the flesh and literature are.--Jim Ridley

Acting alone

Mel Gibson's nervous chatter--a trademark of his action-comedy characters since the first Lethal Weapon film--has become a nagging distraction. What was once funny and energetic is now plainly annoying; he's like one of those people who insists on asking you questions even when you're on the phone. Throughout Conspiracy Theory, Gibson's latest, you may find yourself wishing that the star would just shut up for a minute so you can concentrate on his movie.

Which is too bad, because Gibson's character in Conspiracy Theory is his most interesting to date. Jerry is a New York cabdriver who self-publishes a newsletter that purports to blow the lid off all the secret dealings of the American government. Jerry is jittery and paranoid, but part of him is aware that his behavior is bizarre. When the object of his affection (Julia Roberts, as a skeptical prosecutor) visits his apartment and sees the stacks of old newspapers and the multiple copies of The Catcher in the Rye, Jerry erupts into desperate, shameful tears.

But Gibson can't resist cute-ing up his performance. He milks the character for pathos when pathos is required, but he's more comfortable running off at the mouth and spouting jokey references to Oliver Stone. The film follows Gibson's lead, converting his neurotic ramblings into harmless running gags.

The juicy premise of Conspiracy Theory is that one of Jerry's crackpot theories is true; even though his life is in danger, the filmmakers quickly undercut the sense of danger by playing up the goof appeal of Jerry's opinions. Gibson's partners in crime here are director Richard Donner and screenwriter Brian Helgeland. Donner is a clumsy action director, big on close-ups and rapid editing that obscure what's actually happening. In Air Force One, Wolfgang Peterson masterfully controlled the logistics of action on a large aircraft. In Conspiracy Theory, Richard Donner can't navigate a chase through a hallway without losing track of where his hero is.

As for Helgeland, his script is actually pretty good...at first. He provides a tricky protagonist, one too crazed for full audience empathy. He then follows this character for a good 20 minutes as Jerry drives his cab, shares his cracked worldview, has a hallucinatory freak-out, and returns to his rat's-nest apartment. To this cramped milieu, Helgeland adds a star-crossed romance between Jerry and the attorney, and he also works in a startling third-act plot twist involving the legendary CIA mind-control experiments. This twist effectively explains the weirdness of the first part of the movie, and it sets up the intriguing possibility that our hero may in fact be a villain.

The problems come in the last half-hour, where Helgeland and Donner sell out their hard-edged Parallax View-esque psychodrama and turn it into...well, Lethal Weapon. All the edginess disappears into a procession of dull shoot-outs and chases, leading to an improbable last-second love story and a ridiculous tacked-on ending.

Combine the sellout finale with Gibson's tendency toward cartoonishness, and the result is particularly appalling; it's like those old Warner Bros. animated shorts that turned Of Mice and Men's poignant, tragic lead characters into wacky slapstick cats named George and Lenny. The filmmakers had the opportunity to make a compelling drama about the point at which paranoia and reality meet, but they opted for a toothless, inane crowd-pleaser. Reportedly, test screenings had something to do with the softening of the film, but let's face it--this project was sunk from the moment Mel Gibson opened his mouth.--Noel Murray

The blackboard bungle

If the truth about urban public schools slapped us in the face, we wouldn't know it. Ever since those kids smashed Glenn Ford's jazz records in The Blackboard Jungle, Hollywood has been telling us that our schools are battle zones. By now, the students-vs.-teacher movie is as formulaic and sensationalized as the juvenile delinquent movie of the '50s and the gang movie of the '70s. And its claim to present shocking, searing reality straight off the streets is just about as credible.

187, the latest in the Escape from P.S. 111 genre, puts a new twist on schoolhouse high jinks by flirting with thriller and murder-mystery elements. Samuel L. Jackson stars as Trevor Garfield, a New York City science teacher who, during the prologue, is stabbed by a student failing his class. Garfield then moves to Los Angeles and becomes a substitute. He battles the gangs of taggers and potheads in his class, mentors the school slut who has writing talent, and meets the faculty stereotypes: John Heard's cynical burnout and Kelly Rowan's frightened-but-game love interest. The twist--and it does make one sit up and take notice--comes when a gangbanger named Benny is found dead, and his homies swear that Garfield is stalking them with a bow and arrow. Is Teach a killer?

It takes about 20 minutes for the mystery to be revealed, and then we're back to readin', 'ritin', and Russian roulette. Although director Kevin Reynolds thinks he's filming gritty realism, every frame is unbearably stylized. Ominous, fighting shadows flit across classroom walls, dwarfing the real actors. Vaseline is smeared on the camera lens in shot after shot to create blurry edges on the frame. Pretension reaches a peak when Garfield installs a security camera in his classroom, allowing for a whole scene shot in pixelvision--although Reynolds can't resist cutting to hand-held close-ups even here, when the video camera presumably remains bolted to the wall.

A closing credit solemnly announces that 187 was written by a teacher. Obviously not an English teacher--the movie's structure ignores every rule of dramatic development. Even more egregious than the half-hour mystery in the middle of the film is what the plot twist does to the audience's point of view. We experience the story through Garfield, our on-screen surrogate; but to present him as a murder suspect, the movie suddenly has to make him a stranger until the mess is cleared up and our protagonist is sympathetic again.

Critics who pan movies about important social problems are often accused of not caring about those problems. But is sensationalizing a crisis under the guise of making a movie about it any better? What we need is a documentary about these schools to take the edge off the "reality" hype and to give us a standard by which to judge what we see in fiction movies. Sure, 187 is well-meaning in its attempt to expose an intolerable situation, but an expos is useless if its form obscures the truth instead of revealing it. Hollywood tends to punch up reality in the name of entertainment; often, as in this case, the result is neither entertaining nor real.--Donna Bowman

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