Zest of the Fest
Five breakout films from the Chicago International Film Festival
By Ray Pride
OCTOBER 12, 1998: Some of us wait until Christmas to be disappointed; there are others who dread the Chicago International Film Festival for similar reasons. While a few stellar entries mimic the programming of the marvelous, omnivorous Toronto International Film Festival or the smaller showcase that is the New York Film Festival, most of what CIFF terms "discoveries" appear to be the scraps of the insatiable world fest circuit, scooping up middling product from countries such as Russia, Argentina and Belgium. For previews and interviews with the talent behind five must-see films, read on.
If you haven't heard why "Happiness," the new film from Todd Solondz, writer-director of "Welcome to the Dollhouse," is already notorious, you will soon. Solondz makes a major leap from his earlier picture, in formal and tonal control, in the unflinching starkness of its comedy, and in development of his own vigorous voice.
In depicting the wildly unsuccessful attempts of its large cast of characters, centered around three New Jersey sisters, to find the title state of mind, Solondz has made an extraordinary film that divided its early viewers between finding it intelligent yet twisted, or delicate and ultimately compassionate.
There's a scene where Jane Adams, as the most dumped-upon of the sisters, sits alone, strumming a naive little song called "Happiness." A great irony comes from the song popping up under the end credits, sounding catchy, "covered" by Michael Stipe. "Right, right, right. That was fun," Solondz says. "A friend of mine wrote the song for me for the movie, made to order for the character. Then there was the idea that Joy's song gets picked up by R.E.M., by Michael Stipe, y'know. It's pretty catchy." Like the duet, "I'm Not Worthy," between Squeaky Fromme and Mark David Chapman in Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins," it's faux-naif parody seventies soft pop that turns into something lovely. "That's the thing, the funny thing about these songs. Say you hear Air Supply [who are heard in the movie]. On a certain level, the first time you hear the song, you say, 'Aghhh, it's kitsch, schmaltz, all of that.' Then you hear it fifteen more times on the radio and you have to say, 'Omigod, I'm moved, I'm crying from this.' Then you hear it thirty more times, and you say, 'I'm going to jump out the window if I hear it one more time.' The reason there's a strong response is that these songs do get at the circuits in our brain. They do play with us. There's contempt on one hand and slavish adoration on the other. You feel like it's unearned. 'Look you don't have the right, I'm crying but that's not fair!' It's like watching a cheesy movie about a poor child with a terrible illness; you're weeping, but you know the whole thing is manipulating, hitting all those circuits."
Bryan Singer's first feature, "Public Access," marked the director as a very serious young man, and his second, 1995's "The Usual Suspects," brought him to the attention of a larger audience. His compelling, ambitious "Apt Pupil," made with an astonishing degree of visual control, distills Stephen King's novella wherein a high-school boy, Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro), nurtures his inner Nazi with the help of an escaped war criminal, Arthur Denker (Ian McKellen).
With the performances Singer draws from the pair in the game of intergenerational cat-and-mouse, you wish he had gone deeper, in examining how Todd's fascination with the crimes of the Holocaust lead him to toss away much of his humanity. Singer's concern, he says, was in keeping to the mood of King's work, but "adapting any novel is difficult. The book takes place over four years, with Todd's age going from 14 to 18. I didn't want to do that with the movie, so I tried to localize it with a 16-year-old senior. The book involved a lot of ultraviolence and murder, and although it worked so beautifully on the page, in the film world it might become less believable, and repetitive and exploitative."
Singer sees "Apt Pupil" as a straightforward horror tale. "The essence of the story is still there, psychological horror, that's what this movie is, it's a horror film." Singer doesn't find the on-screen violence as important as the shift in roles between Bowden and Denker. "The violence is all from the book. It was a matter of subtracting. In the book, they both become serial killers and at the end, Todd goes out with his rifle his father gave him and he dry-fires - with no bullets - at the cars on the freeway, kills his guidance counselor, then waits for five-and-a-half hours as it's nearly dark, before the police take him down. I loved it in the book, the perpetuation of this evil from the past, from Europe, manifesting itself on the world against homeless people, indigents, and eventually to people driving along the freeway. The trouble is, if you show an audience that visually, they're going to get real tired of seeing bums get whacked. And how do you end it? We decided to play psychological games."
Ten minutes or so into her one-woman "God Said, 'Ha!'" Julia Sweeney's charm kicks in. Her hour-and-a-half monologue is about a period in her life where nothing went right, and her family grew closer as her young brother was battling terminal cancer. Then, Sweeney was diagnosed with a rare form of cervical cancer. The remarkable thing? Sweeney makes it funny and poignant stuff, leaping from the heart-rending to the gut-busting. Even more impressive are the shooting circumstances - two shows repeated straight through on a single day's straightforward shooting. The project started as an outlet on Sunday nights at a comedy workshop, describing how her family was jammed into her ideal little house, but not immediately mentioning why they are all there.
"People say, 'When did you start writing it?' and I'll say, 'I never wrote it,'" she says. "Only in the end I transcribed what I was saying to have a copy of it. I never sat down and composed it. It was more like I was just ranting. Just to remember what story followed the other, I made an outline of just headers. How I came up with the words was improvised."
Spalding Gray says he doesn't remember the text, but the last time he performed it. "Wow. Yeah, there's a certain rhythm I can remember. I did a lot of benefit performances over the last year. Every two months I'd do the show and it was really scary, not knowing if I would remember it. But one thing would lead to the other, like getting a machine to go. If I found the first five words, I could do the whole show."
There are several strong visual moments that would be hard to plan. There's a close-up where Sweeney first speaks the dread word "cancer" about herself that's slightly out of focus, and the "mistake" adds immeasurably to the impact. "Yeah. That was a happy accident. We had a lot of problems with focus. Not anyone's fault, but me trying to shoot it as a real performance and get close-ups, which is a really impossible thing to do. There were three 35mm cameras, and I said, 'I want you to get as close to me as you can and keep moving.' And we didn't have a lot of rehearsal time. So one of the payments of doing that is that a lot of stuff will be out of focus. The cameramen are used to rehearsing and they had to follow me. A lot of stuff was good but it was too out of focus. It was heartbreaking."
Richard LaGravenese's movie career began with his original screenplay, "The Fisher King," but lately, he's been known as the writer who can carve an honorable drama out of confused or dense books, such as "Bridges of Madison County," "The Horse Whisperer" and "Beloved."
Returning to writing his own material for his directorial debut, "Living Out Loud," LaGravenese has made an appealing, often marvelous story about loneliness in the big city, and the tentative gestures his characters make toward some kind of contact.
Holly Hunter is Oscar-deserving in the central role, giving a tactile, forceful performance as Judith, the divorced wife of a wealthy doctor who now scrapes by despite her Fifth Avenue address. Danny DeVito is fine as the building's elevator man, who becomes close to her, as is Queen Latifah, regal as a singer at a jazz club who helps Judith rediscover the potential for passion.
"It's way different from rapping," Latifah says. "It's going from speaking to singing, controlling the tone. You are using a few different muscles. I grew up with jazz all in my house, my father played it constantly. He had a club so all kinds of music was always in my house. I didn't know 'Lush Life,' but when I heard that, I knew it was in the movie. I couldn't just do any song; I'm not necessarily capable of pulling it off in the way it should come off."
She also gets the benefit of costume designer Jeffrey Kurland, whose always-excellent work is shown to greatest advantage in Latifah's gowns. "Weren't they fabulous? Did you see my breasts? Aren't they huge? Did you see high they were? I went, 'Damn! Not again with the breasts!' It was cool. I never had a corset made for me before. As I watched the movie, everyone looks great, Holly's wardrobe was fabulous, but I'm glad this is my age, this is my era, where I get to go on stage and shout in a pair of jeans if I want instead of some tight shit I can barely breathe in."
Bill Condon's career has flown under the critical and commercial radar, starting with his precocious horror script, 1981's "Strange Behavior," followed by several movies for television and cable. His appearance at Sundance this year with "Gods and Monsters" was one of the treats of that festival. Ian McKellen's performance as James Whale, the openly gay English expatriate director of movies like "Frankenstein," is hands-down brilliant. There are so many layers so effortlessly arrayed in his work that one would be forgiving even if the film were not as good as it is.
Condon's portrait (based on a novel by Christopher Bram) of Whale as an artist in the last days of his life is also richly multifaceted. Brendan Fraser is very good as a gardener whom Whale becomes fixated upon, a straight man who remains curious and ambivalent about Whale's need for his companionship. "Brendan listens a lot," Condon says. "I love the way he does it. If he didn't have that equal weight in the scenes, I don't think it would come off. By definition, that character he plays is so unformed and inarticulate, but he's got this stuff raging inside."
While shot in widescreen, "Gods and Monsters" was made on the modest scale of a cable movie. Condon's script was widely respected, but the finance was slow to come. "Clive Barker signed on as executive producer, and Ian attracted other actors. One of the most amazing things, I don't think any movies get made..." Condon trails off, still exasperated.
"In my experience, movies get made because someone has a gun to their head. Ian had been involved for two years, but he had a commitment to the National Theater in London for a year. All of this fooling around had to stop, we had to be shooting by July 1. That was it, there was no choice. If there hadn't been that, I wonder if it'd still be, 'Oh, we'll do in a month.' "Brendan's name helped, not tremendously at that point, 'George of the Jungle' hadn't come out yet and he had done his share of movies that no one cared about. But ultimately, it's a really distorted system. Ian is a big enough star to get the movie made, but it all gets driven by overseas sales agents who give you lists of names and combinations that might make it palatable enough. Then I could go to bank and the company could borrow the money.
"Horrifying names suddenly started to appear. I think the trick of that, everyone in this movie is my first choice, but I had to wade through a lot of others to get there. It's so strange, when you see all these big actors in movies they don't belong in. What seems weird to me is that it's proven over and over again that a big star in a little movie doesn't bring their audience with them. It doesn't work that way. I was able to fight it, but I think a lot of filmmakers get forced to use people who hurt their movie."
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