THE SMOKE'S 50 FAVORITE FILMS OF THE 1990'S
PART ONE, page 2
45. TOTAL RECALL (1990, Paul Verhoeven)
In his science fiction films, Verhoeven is on a perpetual search for the human soul. In Robocop, he went about unearthing the humanity encased inside machine; in Hollow Man, he divorced body and mind to see if consciousness remained (it didn't.) With Total Recall he presented himself with a real challenge: to discover the soul of Arnold Schwarzenegger. A typically distracted blue collar bloke, driven by the obscure desire to escape his earthly confines and unfulfilled existence to become somebody else entirely, Doug Quaid effectively allows himself to be turned into...Arnold Schwarzenegger, unstoppable action hero, always ready with a sly quip. Because audiences come into the movie with their own memory of the action star - slick, invincible, ethically incontrovertible - Verhoeven lays out exactly what's going to happen by having Quaid's identity surgeon describe what we all expect: Schwarzenegger will "get the girl, kill the bad guys and save the entire planet." In sabotaging the narrative, Verhoeven taps into the illusory reliance on memory by exposing the conspiratorial nature of storytelling. The things a movie audience is required to accept - that when a wholesome hero wakes up next to a woman she must be his wife, if men with guns turn up they must be after him - are subverted to substantiate the Schwarzenegger formula, making Quaid the most reluctant übermensch adventurer of all time. Is it memory that makes up the soul? Does an audience's quick acceptance of Schwarzenegger as superhuman asskicker make it instantly so, as Quaid's implanted personality so drastically and directly alters his lifestyle? Was the American action star of the late 80's/early 90's such a downloadable archetype, indistinguishable from one Carolco release to the next, that a simple insertion of "non-reality" to the plot would render him interchangable as hero or villain, husband or bachelor, earthbound construction worker or universal liberator?
To Verhoeven it's more complicated. Anyone who's seen Hercules in New York can attest that Schwarzenegger wasn't created in a day, that what was truly Herculean was his leap from bodybuilding competitor to A-list action star. The director dissects this iconic colossus by splitting him into two different characters* and having one talk to the other, visually duplicating his violence-prone persona via heavily-armed holgraphic projection, and presenting the possibility of one Quaid going head-to-head with evil henchmen on a far-off planet while another lies labotomized on a slab at Rekall. By making Quaid the target as well as concealed mastermind behind an interplanetary conspiracy, Verhoeven frees him from moral responsibility (like Naked Lunch's Bill Lee, the reality-challenged lead shoots his wife square in the head, in a moment orchestrated to be cheer-worthy.) Creating a "fake" Quaid in the form of a hologram to help dish out some extreme force to faceless flunkies legitimizes the feats of a one-man army (it's really a dynamic duo!) and further supports his muscular moral supremacy, which is also bolstered by the idea that none of this is actually happening (it's a movie bonehead, of course it's not happening.) But these are all reflections protruding from a sad earth creature whose ultimate dream is to terraform a foreign planet after dispatching its dictator, thus saving a population of subjugated minorities (in this case, mutants) in the laziest way imaginable: with an artifact left over from an extinct alien civilization. The real Quaid may very well be the disguise he uses to get his ass to Mars, an overweight "normal" tourist, as out in the open as the true form of a mutant messiah is hidden beneath a shirt on the the abdomen of a freedom fighter. Verhoeven even sends in a psychiatrist/film critic to ask Arnold whether any of this is even plausible, demanding he "return to reality" (Verhoeven has pointed out how silent and tense an audience gets during this scene, like people are worried that the non-stop action and adventure, and vicarious entitlement to Arnold's Absolute Right, will abruptly cease. It's one of the most amazing scenes in the history of science fiction movies.)
Maybe it's all a comment on Hollywood movies, but somehow it's not condescending - it's transcending. To the director, duality is development: making more of ourselves than our makeup intends, drawing two people from one, applying mental powers or triple breasts that give hideous mutants (and midgets) the edge over their "pure" oppressors. Verhoeven sees in Arnold that human achievement is unlimited, and in Quaid a natural accident in a world of fancy technological advancements, not a human-devised collusion to create something but the ultimate evolutionary revolutionary. He's an action movie nerd's Frankenstein's monster, awaken by a common man's unconscious need to replace irresolution with righteousness. Whether the emancipated Quaid in fact exists is always secondary in Verhoeven's concerns to the question of why anybody would want to physically go to Mars when there's so much to explore about the human mind. Because each of Quaid's identities has a soul: good, greedy or grinning, they are terrible and magnificent things. For all we know, Schwarzenegger could be a fat redheaded woman struggling to break out of an Austrian goliath and not the other way around. Without the enlightenment that comes from expanse we're all such vulnerable, bullet-susceptible meat, prone to Nazi-style science tempering, undoubtedly dull parties (where you won't be seeing Richter anytime soon), unable to grasp the humanity found in the technology of long dead aliens. True understanding lies, in the words of Kuato, in the ability to "Open your miiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiind!" All of this would be detrimental to the movie's roller coaster ride escapes and confrontations, if Verhoeven weren't so singularly deft at handling layered concepts as well as awesome action sequences. And it's by simultaneously sanctioning and questioning the structure of the action film that Verhoeven exits the movie with his prize: the soul of Schwarzenegger.
* Notably the other persona is called Hauser, sharing a name with a famous evolutionary biologist AND an enigmatic historical figure "born" into adulthood.
44. NAKED LUNCH (1991, David Cronenberg)
Cinematically speaking, Naked Lunch was one of those books that purists and critics alike cried of its unfilmable nature – banned and censored for obscenity when it was initially published, it's cut-up heroin-soaked prose all too abstract, and at times virtually incomprehensible to the average reader. I read the book at 16, and while I remember being impressed and appreciative of its style, I also remember being completely lost and alienated by its bedlam of language at the same time - also, more occasionally, bored. To this day I don't think I can recollect a single thing I had read, or even if I finished the thing. Though, in its defense my memory doesn't stretch much beyond ten minutes, much-less ten years. But generally the more conventional and linear prose of Junky and Exterminator - or even the first book of the Cities of the Red Night trilogy – were more preferable. But I'm just a square, so maybe this lacks a certain validation. The fact that the Burroughs novel was able to establish clearance, funding and mainstream distribution for a feature film adaptation has to be a story in itself, a story that I am not going to even bother examining or researching because I don't really care.
Though to be clear the approach to adapting the novel was about as abstract as the source material. It qualifies as an adaptation by name only: ingesting the drug of the book or film, before or after the other, matters not. Not isolating itself to one specific source, Cronenberg's film could have just as easily have been called Junky or Nova Express as it was of Naked Lunch and there probably would not have been much to differentiate the end results. themes of Burroughs' work as a whole are expressed rather than the specific content, all while being fused with surrealistic and unconventional biography (I suppose the centerpiece in this case is Bill Lee's failed William Tell routines that leave a hole in the heads of Joan Lee and Joan Frost, both played by Judy Davis, which bookends the beginning and end of the film - it's of no coincidence that these are the only two female figures in the film, and probably two of the only female figures to crop up in the entire scope of William Burroughs' work or life: this only manages to crystalize a statement made by Bill Lee about the vast differences between men and women, and how women exist as a completely different species altogether) and topping it all off with Cronenberg's distinct style and visual elements, including his flare for the ol' bodyhorror. Those drug-addled libido-driven typewriters with the talking assholes that the film is most associated with? They do not appear anywhere in Burroughs' writing; they're devices created solely for the film.
In many ways the movie is a mess, its use of and flow of hallucinatory consciousness facilitating claims of being guilty of being too dense, cryptic and abstract for its own good, possibly even a bit self-indulgent (possibly?!...a bit?!) And of course the fact that we get to see Roy Scheider with fake rubber tits plastered on his chest while casually waltzing down labrynths of centipede ejaculate – a definite first in film history – probably does not fully manage to repudiate these claims or win over any detractors who had managed to make it this far into the film. In fairness, I see their point. "I can think of at least two things wrong with that title," cites a bemused and disappointed Nelson Muntz walking out of the theater, and I am sure this is a thought reflective of many. I was five years old when this movie was released, but I would have loved to be there opening day to record the reaction of an audience viewing it for the first time. This is more for general curiosity than any kind of cinema snobbery. Even now I am surprised that I still like it as much as I do. At times it ventures down avenues that I think are too much and too ridiculous, even for me – and I'm someone who does not open my mouth unless it is something of a scatological nature. But then again, I also hate and don't understand the use of extreme close-ups in porn, so whenever I'm eyeballs deep in someone's - or something's - gaping butthole it is bound to feel like sensory overload in just about any situation.
Self-indulgent? A valid critique, but for me this kind of manic self-indulgence is part of what I found so appealing about the film. One can analyze the film and view it as an extended reflection and personification of the struggles and narcissism of the writer/filmmaker/artist, et al. – in the end we're all half-cocked stoners acting out our moments of lucidity by utilizing our instruments of the trade as tools of our own selfish masturbatory purposes. Forgoing the tins of vaseline and a box of Kleenex, Bill Lee lubes up with the bugspray and empties into the Clark Nova like a manic fifteen year old who just found that magic corner inside the women's clothing department of Sears that rests in the blind spot of the security cameras. Don't act like you haven't done it.
I believe Cronenberg has described the film as a comedy and that's the way it should be viewed, much in the same way that Crash is (I know that it's not deliberate, but that one almost feels like a parody of the JG Ballard novel, still the most uninvolving pieces of literature focusing on car crashes and anal sex that I have ever read.) Maybe calling it the Frankenhooker of the arthouse isn't that great of a disservice.
43. 71 FRAGMENTS IN A CHRONOLOGY OF CHANCE (1994, Michael Haneke)
Loosely based on the true story of an Austrian college student who cracked up and shot up a bank full of people then killed himself, Haneke's film is one of the few multi-storyline/multi-character films from the mid-90's that had absolutely no influence from Pulp Fiction like so many others from that era. Not to take anything away from Pulp Fiction (which I still think is a brilliant film) but those multi-storyline/"we’re all connected" movies like Go, 2 Days In The Valley and Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels all started to look the same after a while. In 71 Fragments, Haneke interweaves the lives of various Austrian residents during the Christmas season (a couple that's just adopted a daughter, a severely depressed middle-aged couple that recently lost a child, a lonely old man who rarely sees his family, a college student on the brink of a nervous breakdown and a young Romanian immigrant living on the street.) For people interested in exploring his filmography for the first time, 71 Fragments is pretty much Haneke 101. It's extremely cold and features no shortage of typical "Haneke-esque" moments like a couple returning a child to an orphanage because they can't connect, or an unexpected emotional breakdown at the dinner table where a husband slaps his wife after she screams at him for saying he loves her. At some point in just about any of his films, there's bound to be one or two cleverly placed scenes of violence or something depressing that just catches you off guard. Haneke's movies aren't exactly ever "action-packed" or fast-paced, but at the same time he wants the audience's attention. Just when you start to zone out, doze off or just settle into the calmness of his movies, he throws in a quick BANG in the form of someone getting shot in the face (Benny's Video), mutilating their own genitalia (The Piano Teacher), slitting their own throat (Cache) or a quick killing spree followed by an abrupt suicide, which is what we get at the end of 71 Fragments. Much like Benny's Video and The Seventh Continent, not only does 71 Fragments make Austria look like the saddest place on earth, but it focuses heavily on the banalities of everyday life and almost beats the audience down to the point where they start to question their own daily routine and wonder if life is even worth living.
All of Haneke's early work could just as easily be set here, which is funny because for someone so critical of America and its films (something Haneke made obvious with Funny Games), a lot of the messages in his work applies more to Americans than they do to Europeans and 71 Fragments is no exception. Obviously Americans aren't the only people who battle with the issues found in 71 Fragments like depression, fear, isolation from family, suicide and detachment, but these days it seems to be more heightened in this country than anywhere else. Outside of just Funny Games, films like Benny's Video, the story of a young boy who films himself killing a girl "just because," definitely applies to American youth (true, Benny's Video is also loosely based on a true story about something that happened in Austria, but at the end of the day violence among youth is a much bigger problem in America than it is in most European countries.) You could even go so far as to relate some of the racial issues in Cache to America (although not fully.) 71 Fragments is one of those films that makes you wonder how Haneke would do making an American film outside of the Funny Games remake. Just imagine him tackling issues like obesity, racism and senseless reality television. Actually, my one and only complaint is that with all the issues that 71 Fragments touches on, race and/or racism is the one obvious element missing from the film. But Haneke did make up for this a few years later with Code Unknown. It's obvious he draws a lot of inspiration from Robert Bresson, although not so much in the performances of his actors. But in terms of filmmaking style, Bresson's influence is all over this film. From the emotionless opening and closing credits to the killing spree at the end, it's pretty clear that L'Argent has made an impact on Haneke's life.
71 Fragments isn't as depressing as his previous two films, but it comes pretty close with a bleak open-ending just as powerful that leaves no resolution. It's a film that truly deserves a spot on this list, as it was pretty slept-on upon its initial release but is now finally getting the recognition it deserves.
42. THE INSIDER (1999, Michael Mann)
Here's the problem with The Insider: Manncolytes will frequently point to it as evidence that Mann can make a "mature" film, a film about important ideas, based on a true story, full of dignified yet showy performances. They will frequently pitch the film as Oscar-baitey, as if that were proof of its importance. And, as usual, they end up missing what's great about the film completely: The Insider is batshit-crazy. It's a western disguised as an early-90's period piece set in corporate boardrooms, about two men trying to live by their codes of honor and ethics in a world that insists they compromise. Pacino is relatively subdued (considering this is Heat/Devil's Advocate-era Pacino), his eyes betraying the burden of having to constantly shoulder the ethical bar for his entire profession. But it's Russell Crowe who is the revelation here, playing Jeffrey Wigand, a man faced with having to to do the right thing at the expense of burning his entire life to the ground. He plays Wigand as a man constantly, barely suppressing his rage (possibly bottling it all up to use in his next role as Maximus in Gladiator.)
The film looks as good as anything Mann has ever shot (on film at least - Miami Vice gives it a run for its money.) It's the pinnacle of his working relationship with DP Dante Spinotti, and it blows the doors off the formal 80's elegance of Manhunter and the naturalistic, earthy tones of Last of the Mohicans. Its drifting lens, impossibly narrow depth of field, constantly racking focus and insanely stylized filter/color timing schematic add up to one of the last great milestones in cinematography, breaking right at the dawn of the digital era. Mann's script, co-written with Eric "Gump" Roth, boldly amps up the journalistic/legalese jargon while bifurcating its narrative, focusing primarily on Wigand's transition from Tobacco Executive to corporate whistleblower and the devastation this wreaks on his personal life in its first half. The second half of the film follows Bergman's attempts to get the story on the air at CBS after Brown and Williamson threatens the network with a muti-billion dollar lawsuit. Both narratives climax with the protagonists speaking out publicly in an effort to preserve their dignity and integrity, at the expense of their personal and professional lives, and two sequences serve as perfect examples of what sets Mann apart from the rest of the pack. The first is an expansive, showy set piece, the second is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment, but both are idiosyncratically, unmistakably Mann.
The first sequence comes halfway through the film. Wigand has already filmed his interview with 60 Minutes, but it is being held off of the air until his testimony is on the public record, thus freeing him from his Corporate Confidentiality Agreement. He's traveled to Mississippi to be a witness in a depostition against Big Tobacco, but on his way through the airport is served with a gag order. The lawyers he's working with explain it to him in layman's terms: if he proceeds with the deposition, he could be imprisoned upon returning to Kentucky. And so here's Wigand: standing on the lawn of a grand Mississippi estate, staring, in true Mann protagonist fashion, off into the water. A hundred yards away from him, a small brigade of state troopers with automatic weapons and a whole caravan of vehicles awaits his decision. Bergman approaches him, offers him a way out: "Maybe things have changed." Wigand looks from Bergman back out to the ocean. "A lot's changed." "You mean since this morning." "No, I mean since whenever...Fuck it, let's go to court." The decision has been made. The troopers scatter to their cars. The guitar chords of Gustavo Santaolalla's "Iguazu" blot out all other sounds, and suddenly we're drifting along with the caravan, Wigand gazing out the window of the car, surrounded by people but utterly alone, and we arrive at the courthouse (the actual courthouse where the actual Jeffrey Wigand made the deposition, because Mann strives for authenticity in every way possible), and as Jeffrey exits the car, suddenly we're crushed by the sound of the scrum of reporters surrounding Jeff. The images, the sound, and the feel for the psychology of a man at the precipice is all vintage Mann.
The second moment is a smaller one, late in the film. Bergman is in a hotel room outside Helena, Montana, having gotten a tip on the FBI about to move on the Unabomber's cabin. He's failed in his attempts to get Wigand's story on the air, and he's watching the tape of the show, riddled with guilt at having essentially left his source out to dry. In typical Mann fashion, he gazes meaningfully out the window. But instead of an ocean, which is what a Mann hero normally stares into when contemplating a decision that will probably destroy his life, he sees a horse trailer, half-covered in snow. And it's while looking at this trailer, never seen before and not seen again, that Bergman makes the decision to betray his collegues in an attempt to publicize the story, forcing their hand to air it. It's such a specific image that I've always believed it to have grown out of actual conversations with Bergman. The trailer somehow serves as an externalization of all of the film's conflicts while simultaneously being just a trailer sitting outside Bergman's window. It's barely a moment, more of a detail, notable for its weird specificity, turning a broken-down horse trailer into a non-symbol for the murky moral pond that was turn of the century corporate America, in a film about two men who, at the end of the day, just want to walk into their homes justified.
41. CLOCKERS (1995, Spike Lee)
After the Right Thing follow-up belly flop Mo Better Blues, the 90's were an outstanding decade for Spike Lee. Yeah there was Girl 6, but mainly there was Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Crooklyn, He Got Game, Summer of Sam - add to that the odd documentary or music video and I don't know when the man slept. It was also his most acting-heavy period,* and the parts he gave himself revealed a lot about his goal with each project. In Jungle Fever, he's the buddy whose innocent gossip spreads across the web that connects the culturally segregated neighborhood; similarly in Summer of Sam, his reporter John Jeffries sets off the city-wide panic in the wake of a serial killer's spree. With Malcolm X, playing a pal from Malcolm's pimp days, he placed himself modestly into the annals of black history as an observer; in Crooklyn, he became witness to his own childhood, albeit through the murky haze of drug addition (read: memory.) In Clockers, Lee appears as a forty-swilling local who turns up at every crime scene in the Boerum Hill housing projects, shaking his head behind the police tape and offering wry commentary as jaded cops manhandle the fresh corpse. Spike the director suggests there's really nothing else you can do (an astoundingly subdued stance from such a finger-pointing confrontationalist as Lee.) The concern in Clockers is no longer simply the problem of "brothers killing brothers" like many an important 90's film, but rather the frustration over how commonplace it's become. The presence of the pushers is literally as regular and accepted as if they were clocking in at a 9 to 5 job. Apathy provides the film its somber tone: the dreadful resignation that nobody actually cares enough to do the right thing. Project parents try to beat youthful gang runners into submission. Cops, although ultimately well-meaning, can't see past the profile. All the while Mekhi Phifer's Strike, rotting from the inside, spewing blood-tinged bile as his involvement becomes more and more inescapable, truly believes he can keep one foot in the drug business while remaining relatively clean. He keeps up this delusion by sourcing out an assigned hit to his responsible, family man brother Victor, who it turns out harbors something even more dangerous than apathy: intolerance. Shame over the state of his community. Resentment towards fellow black men who make money dealing and pimping while he works two jobs and can barely make ends meet. This outrage results in the death of a low-level dealer that nobody gives a shit about, just another stain on the street. Another body murdered. DMF.
What follows is a Rashomon game of implications, accusations (complete with false flashbacks) and consequences. Victor, resolved to stay away from street crime until the day he can move out of the projects, becomes a murderer. Strike, refusing to accept responsibility for his negative influence on others, can't convince Harvey Keitel's detective that he didn't pull the trigger, or boss Delroy Lindo that he did. Despite enemies piling up against him on both sides (you almost start to feel bad about the number of beatdowns he receives and guns he has shoved into his face), Strike hardly lives up to his namesake: at heart he's no killer, he's a model train enthusiast. Yet the way he carries himself appeals to a young kid in the neighborhood who becomes Strike's Mini-Me and initially endears him to Lindo's Rodney, the most evil and manipulative father figure criminal since Chris Walken in At Close Range. Rodney struts about his territory like a king, but the police never look twice at him - again, he's just the kind of guy they can't do anything about. Their targets are the clockers, kids playing at being tough when, like Strike, they'd rather argue about gangsta rap than do anything found in those lyrics. That's why Spike sympathizes with them, and with Strike - he doesn't believe that they're the problem. It's the only environment they know, and the only solution is to ship 'em out of the city (incidentally, I don't know how many more movies are going to appear on this list that end with Harvey Keitel driving a young black kid to transportation out of New York...probably only three or four more, would be my guess.)
I never know how Clockers is viewed in Lee's filmography; I remember the reviews being mixed at the time. To me it's a clear masterpiece on par with Do the Right Thing and Bamboozled, but does the average Lee fan agree? It's probably my favorite. At the very least, it's free of the flaws that kept his other 90's films just shy of my Top 75 (the one that came closest is He Got Game - I just couldn't get over the baffling presence of Milla Jovovich's character and John Turturro's ridiculous scene.) Malik Sayeed's saturated, blown-out cinematography makes the picture heavy - you can feel the weight of Strike's growing guilt - and creates flares off the shoulders of its characters as if they're all simmering in a subtle hell; not a "hot" atmosphere like Do the Right Thing but an indifferent, uncomfortable mixture of hot and ice cold. But the movie never feels overproduced, in fact its largely grounded aesthetic make the showier scenes (the hit in the park, Keitel's interrogation of the kid) really stand out. We got a career-best performance from Delroy Lindo, terrific work by Isaiah Washington as Victor, an impressive debut for Phifer, and an actor who never gets brought up: Thomas Jefferson Byrd, genuinely intimidating and unpredictable playing psychopath Errol Barnes. Coming out in the mid-90's, it saw Spike and producer Marty Scorsese at the top of their game, served as an interesting response/culmination of films like Boyz N the Hood and Menace II Society and ended up fitting right in the middle of two other classic Lee films. If Do the Right Thing represented the onset of his characters' ongoing New York "conflict" and 25th Hour an ending of sorts, the characters in Clockers are right at the center: insoluble, unreedemed.
* In fact his latest, Red Hook Summer, marks the first time he's acted in one of his own films since the 90's.
<<CLICK HERE FOR #'s 36 THRU 40>>
<<Previous Page 1 2 Next Page>>
home about contact us featured writings years in review film productions
All rights reserved The Pink Smoke © 2012