All Twisted Up Make that sick, poorly acted and twisted.
Twisted Directed by Philip Kaufman
Little Buddha Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
It's been a sickening week at the movies?and not just because of Phil Kaufman's Twisted. But Twisted is a good place to start. It's the latest Ashley Judd family-retainer thriller, pairing the white actress with yet another older black actor to get that Shirley Temple-Bill "Bojangles" Robinson frisson. This time it's Samuel L. Jackson (taking Morgan Freeman's sloppy seconds) playing Judd's father-figure/confidant. As San Francisco cop Jessica Shephard, Judd is appointed homicide inspector by police chief John Mills (Jackson). Andy Garcia is cast as her partner, which means Twisted stars three reliably awful actors. These stooges simply don't appear in good movies. And director Kaufman hasn't made a decent film since 1983's The Right Stuff. Richard Torres once famously compared Kaufman to softcore director Zalman King, but this time Kaufman aspires to the pretentious porn of Jane Campion. Twisted recalls In the Cut, when Inspector Jessica, in her butch hairdo and leather jacket, binges on one-night-stands with various barflies who end up dead. ("Am I my best suspect?" she asks.)
No mystery who the real killer is (not when ghetto-ghoul Sam Jackson is in the vicinity), so Kaufman pads the movie with atmospheric Bay Area locations (delicately lensed by Peter Deming) and lurid sex-crime motifs. He alternates scenes of naked humping with montages of blood-splashes, contusions, flesh wounds, welts and cigarette burns as "entertainment." Yet most critics last week circled their wagons and took shots at The Passion of the Christ, complaining about excessive violence. It seems like the old story of people only resenting movies with serious content. Casual violence shown just for fun doesn't raise critics' ire; they only get upset when violence is made to matter, when it's presented artistically.
Movie journalists revealed their cultural biases in last week's attacks on Mel Gibson, but the hysterical denunciations also exposed their dishonest esthetic criteria. One reason we're regularly assaulted with garish, smutty action films like Twisted is because that's what is routinely accepted in the culture. It was stunning to see David Denby on The Charlie Rose Show call The Passion of the Christ "a snuff movie," the kind of insensitive comment that would never be applied to, say, Schindler's List, out of simple cultural respect. Denby breaches that caution?and appears righteous in doing so?because contemporary film culture is dominated by disbelieving skepticism. If there is a lack of piety in Gibson's film, it has been outmatched by the cynicism of incredulous reviewers?and by the weekly tide of sarcastic, nihilistic, anti-human movies like Twisted.
In print, Denby chose a more considered condemnation, "a sickening death trip," which could describe most of the movies that have been pitched to the public as thrill rides?from Speed, Pulp Fiction, The Blair Witch Project, Gladiator to such middlebrow morbidity as American Beauty, In the Bedroom, Elephant and demonlover. These films construct a faithless and hip aura in which a subject like The Passion of the Christ can be blithely derided. A routine thriller like Twisted belongs to Hollywood's?and critics'?abiding beliefs in shrill cinematic excitation.
That's why Kaufman knowingly begins the movie inviting the audience's delectation of torture. An unnamed woman is held captive by an anonymous man. Close-ups of her eyes darting helplessly are followed by shots of birds flying across a gray sky to convey nature's indifference (a trope Kaufman steals from Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc). The man whispers taunts into the woman's ear ("I can feel your heart beating. It sounds like a little animal trying to get out. It sounds like blood. It's like flesh.") Shots show his hands molesting her body, eventually reaching into her crotch ("What's that?" the perpetrator asks) from which the woman eventually pulls out a gun.
Twisted's opening scene, featuring Kaufman's hipster mix of lewdness, violence and comedy, offers a typical entertainment scenario. It's the kind of violent trash that critics customarily praise whether or not they endorse Twisted itself. At this point in our cultural decline they don't have to. We endure insults like Twisted with little expectation of an alternative; we know more twisted flicks are on the way.
No recent movies have been more revoltingly violent than Monster, Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Mystic River, films without spiritual or ethical purpose and little artistic justification. They all contribute to what a character in The Lost World called "the culture of death." Critics have trounced The Passion of the Christ seemingly in defense of movies that ask audiences to feel nothing when viewing violence. Their wimpy objections to this Gibson film above all his others (even the especially gruesome The Patriot, which travestied the political reality of the Revolutionary War without much critical complaint) carry very little force beyond noisy rhetoric.
It's hard to resist the feeling that more than Gibson's style is being rejected but his material as well. And that prejudice has made the movie week sickening. Many critics have refused to contemplate exactly what it is Gibson is depicting and therein lies the speciousness of their arguments. (Denby cites "the electric charge of hope and redemption that Jesus Christ brought into the world...[his] heart-stopping eloquence," which reminded me of his disingenuous complaint that Spike Lee didn't present more of Malcolm X's "intellectual gaiety.") The Passion of the Christ contains imagery that is, if you will, the most powerful in all of Western culture. Fact is, few modern artists have essayed this imagery except to lampoon it (sometimes it seems that movie culture gets increasingly godless). When Gibson recreates Christ's torment and crucifixion, he connects to the emotional essence of Christian understanding. These images aren't simply familiar, Gibson plays them knowingly, effectively?not in the occasional slo-mo, but in the clarifying context he creates.
Some critics simply prefer not to respond to such profound image-making. That's their prerogative as skeptics, atheists, secularists, but it's also their failure as critics. Most recently, critics blinked past De Palma's postmodern crucifixion image in Femme Fatale rather than attend to the film's spiritual ramifications. Spielberg's spiritual and political Amistad likely provoked critics' disapproval by using the crucifix to symbolize suffering and redemption. Denby rants that Gibson "has a powerful weapon?the cinema?with which he can create something greater than argument; he can create faith." The trepidation in that remark goes against one of the most extraordinary aspects of movies: their ability to convince, comfort, strengthen, nourish. This sometimes occurs in critically ignored movies that are not religious-themed and by artists who are not necessarily devout, but who choose to dramatize edifying stories.
One of the finest examples of edifying cinema is Bertolucci's Little Buddha (showing March 6 at the American Museum of the Moving Image). Most reviewers dismissed Little Buddha when it opened in 1994, the year of Pulp Fiction, displaying their usual preference for violence and antipathy toward spirituality in movies. Little Buddha proves it's possible to combine forthright intellectuality with spiritual concern. Bertolucci interweaves the legend of Buddha with the modern-day spiritual search of a American family that is approached by a group of monks seeking the reincarnation of a recently deceased priest. Religious faith is examined for metaphysical wonder and for its political and social necessity. The story has its children's movie, fairy-tale aspect when the monks escort three children to Tibet to take part in a reincarnation test, but that is merely the generic framework for what is actually a supreme cross-cultural reverie.
Bertolucci's sophistication has always put him at the intersection of diverse cultures (French, Italian, American cinema); of hetero- and homosexual attraction (in The Conformist and The Dreamers); of historic and contemporary politics (from the birth of Italian Marxism in 1900 to contemporary colonialism in Besieged and The Sheltering Sky). In Little Buddha, he finds a way to resolve all these troubling antinomies by embracing the civility and hope of Buddhism. Bertolucci looks to the East with the same exoticizing optimism of the 60s counterculture. He cast the iconic Chris Isaak as Dean (the father of the American reincarnation candidate), named to evoke Kerouac's Dean Moriarty?a 50s idealization of American spiritual detachment intended to resonate with the popular cultural revolution implied in Isaak's Elvis Presley resemblance.
Little Buddha reflects Bertolucci's personal revolution following his disenchantment with Marxism, searching for a belief that responds to social distress with spiritual progress. Not a religious film in any traditional sense, it demonstrates a particular secular enlightenment that Western intellectuals seldom allow themselves regarding Christianity. As when Jean Renoir made The River in 1951 (telling the story of a white British family in India after WWII), Bertolucci attends to a multicultural idea of faith. His artistic path resembles Renoir's own. Disillusioned after participating in France's 1930s Popular Front, Renoir sought to express his faith in humanity through a religion uncomplicated by familiar political associations. This honest pursuit led Bertolucci and Renoir to a rediscovery of cinema?not as an ideological weapon but as a source of visionary power.
Both films show a delight in narrative play. In one of The River's most lyrical moments, a girl tells a story that turns one of the film's characters into the incarnation of Krishna; Bertolucci repeats that trope in Little Buddha's shifts from ancient legend to modernity. His faith (like Renoir's) is ecumenical, emphasizing human connection. He makes the story of the Buddha (Prince Siddhartha's journey toward enlightenment enacted by Keanu Reeves), the story of mankind's common struggle. The movie floats on the humanism and speculative optimism of the best films?from The River to Pather Panchali to Antonioni's The Passenger.
Denby was wrong when he surmised "the great modernist artists...have largely withdrawn into austerity and awed abstraction." Little Buddha has a sumptuous appreciation of religion as both history and myth. Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro achieve a visionary splendor that makes the Lord of the Rings trilogy, with its arcane religiosity, look scrawny. All the lame criticism against The Passion of the Christ exposed the full deceitfulness of contemporary film culture. It proved critics' usual disregard of pop spirituality. Despite consistent expressions of spiritual optimism and religious respect in Close Encounters, E.T., The Color Purple, The Last Crusade, Amistad, A.I., Minority Report, critics refuse to see spirituality in Spielberg's films?and they resist acknowledging it in most other movies. They'd rather leave us twisted.