2004 TIFF Update #4: "Defining Independents"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Sunday, September 12, 2004

Not too long ago, it was sufficient to call a motion picture produced outside of the studio system an "independent motion picture." But much has changed in the last few years; that term is no longer sufficient to classify the wide range of movies that have come under the "indie" umbrella. In fact, there are at least three kinds of independent films. The first is the low-budget, director-funded effort that has come into vogue since the advent of digital video. Most of these are crude efforts and/or would-be "calling cards." Perhaps one in 50 of these gets shown in a film festival. Of those, perhaps one in 5 is good enough to be picked up by a distributor. The second kind is the mid-range independent film - movies that are privately financed but stand a good chance of distribution because of who is involved in the project. Finally, there are the "pseudo-independents:" productions financed by major studio offshoots like Miramax, Fine Line, and Focus Features.

The backbone of film festivals is comprised of movies in the middle category. Oh, you'll find some from the first and third, but the majority of what's playing at Toronto can be described as professionally made, independently financed, and either looking for or already snapped up by a distributor. The three movies I'm going to talk about here already have their North American release plans sewn up, so as long as you live in a reasonably major U.S. or Canadian marketplace, you should be able to find them - if you're interested, that is.

For obvious reasons, there aren't many movies about pedophiles or pedophilia. To date, the best-known of these is, of course, Stanley Kubrick's Lolita. Since the 60s, however, entries have been few and far between, and, in most cases, the pedophile is depicted as a sinister caricature. Enter Philadephian Nicole Kassell, who has decided to break through the taboos and make a movie about a pedophile who is developed as a character, not a stereotype. It's the kind of thing British director Ken Loach might do; indeed, the approach is a little Loach-like. For Kassell, this is a bold and perhaps foolhardy move, especially since it's her feature debut. But, due in large part to the participation of Kevin Bacon, she has managed to secure a distributor (Newmarket, the same company behind The Passion of the Christ).

The impulse of the viewer is to be revolted by a pedophile, so Kassell does two things to curb this tendency. She gets the likeable Bacon to play the character and doesn't explicitly reveal his infraction until a third of the way through the movie. This gives us time to get to know him before the hatred builds. Kassell does not ask us to like Bacon's Walter, nor does she expect us to sympathize with him. This is not a bleeding-heart "feel sorry for the criminal" movie. All Kassell is asking is that we try to understand Walter - and even that is a bigger step than some viewers will be able or willing to take.

When we first meet Walter, he is an ex-con being re-introduced to society. He has a new apartment (improbably located across the street from an elementary school playground), a new job, and a new chance at life. His family has all-but-disowned him, with the lone exception of his brother-in-law (Benjamin Bratt). For the most part, he shuns his co-workers, preferring his own company during lunch and standing alone at the bus stop when the day is over. An affair with a forklift operator, Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick), leads Walter to admit his crime. Meanwhile, his old impulses are pulling at him, and his situation is exacerbated as the view through his window shows him what he believes to be another pedophile at work. Visits by a local cop (Mos Def) are intended to keep him on the straight-and-narrow, but they further erode his self-esteem, making his quest for redemption all the harder. It's clear from his conversations with his psychologist that he wants to be "normal," but something deep within him is pushing him away from that goal.

The crucial scene occurs late in the film. (NOTE: Spoilers follow --->) Walter stalks an 11-year old girl named Robin, who has a love of bird-watching. As they converse and his desire for her mounts, he realizes that she has been the victim of abuse by her father. The conversation is unsettling because of the dynamic between the two of them. He is fighting himself, but is aware of the ease with which he could prey upon her. She, as someone accustomed to playing the role of victim, is almost eager to comply with his request for her to sit on his lap. The resolution of this conflict marks a major turing point in Walter's life. (END Spoilers.)

People rightly talk about the courage exhibited by Charlize Theron to play the convicted serial killer in Monster. But does it require less bravery for Kevin Bacon to take on this role? This is arguably the best performance in the actor's career. Unlike Theron, however, he is not likely to be recognized by the Academy - the subject matter of The Woodsman is too controversial. But that doesn't diminish what he has accomplished here. In every scene, we can sense monsters, demons, and compulsions lurking just beneath surface. It takes a confident actor to accept a role like this and to perform it to flawless perfection.

As for Kassell, it will be interesting to see where she goes from here. Two paths lie open to her - she can either move into a more mainstream arena or try something even more daring.

While Kassell is a newcomer, the other two movies are from indie veterans. In fact, these men were involved in the filmmaking business before Kassell was born, and have consistently done it their way. They made independent movies long before it was cool to make independent movies, and those who are working outside of the studio system today owe them a debt of gratitude. Both continue to produce movies, and probably will do so for the foreseeable future. I have always been a fan of John Sayles, and, even though John Waters isn't my cup of tea, I acknowledge and respect him for what he has meant to the industry.

John Sayles has always made political films; they are his bread-and-butter. Yet none, not even Matewan or City of Hope, has been more openly partisan than Silver City, which rips into the anti-environmental policies of the current administration, shows the pointlessness of fighting the co-op of big business and bigger government, and presents a scathing caricature of our current president in the person of Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper), the man who would be governor of Colorado. Pilager is all smiles and charm, yet, beneath the polished surface, there's nothing. Yet, because Sayles has a story to tell, and his tale is both compelling and alarming, Silver City is unlike Fahrenheit 9/11. This is a movie, not propaganda, and, while it doesn't shy away from displaying its political stripes, it is not a tract, nor is its goal to influence the 2004 election. Sayles is simply presenting today's circumstances as he sees them.

Silver City takes us into the 2004 Colorado gubernatorial race. The odds-on favorite to win is Dickie Pilager (not the most subtle last name for an anti-environmentalist), the son of popular Senator Judd Pilager (Michael Murphy). Dickie looks the part, and, as long as he sticks to the text of a prepared speech, he sounds like he knows what he's talking about, even if he does promise something for everyone. But if circumstances force him to talk extemporaneously, he becomes a stammering, incoherent idiot. "Don't ever let yourself get caught out in the open like that again," cautions his campaign manager, Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss), after one such incident.

When the appearance of a dead body at one of Dickie's speaking engagements threatens to embarrass the candidate, Raven hires private investigator Danny O'Brien (Danny Huston) to do some detective work. Danny, who has a checkered past (he was fired from The Denver Monitor for fabricating a story, when, in reality, he was set up), starts digging deeper than his employers want him to, and his investigation leads him to Dickie's sister (Daryl Hannah) and a gangster type who "imports" illegal migrant workers. He also ends up mucking around in an abandoned silver mine that holds a few buried secrets. And his path crosses with old flame Nora (Maria Bello), who is currently engaged to a materialistic lobbyist (Billy Zane).

Silver City offers a bitter antidote to feel-good, "true" stories like A Civil Action and Erin Brockovich, in which ordinary citizens go up against big businesses and win. Silver City illustrates that those are exceptions to the rule. Sayles never lets us forget where the real power exists in this country. He also makes a telling point about why seemingly unqualified candidates win elections. "You make people feel like they're part of a winner, and they'll follow you anywhere." Dickie isn't qualified to hold any elected position, let alone that of governor, but people like him and he leads in the polls, so he'll win by a landslide. There's also this statement: "People have lost the ability to be scandalized" - a snippet of wisdom that expresses not only what's happening in Washington now, but how Clinton remained popular through his eight years in the White House. That's American politics today, and it's not necessary to be a cynic to recognize the truth in what Sayles is saying.

Although there's a lot of politics in Silver City, this is first and foremost a detective story. Since Sayles is the man behind the camera, however, don't expect any car chases or other typical action sequences. Danny's investigation is all about procedure, and peeling back the layers of corruption to reveal deeper secrets. There are no real shocks; dead people don't suddenly turn up alive and any smoking gun has long since rusted under the waters that have flooded most of the silver mines. But there's solid character development, some interesting subplots (such as the developer trying to get the zoning board to approve his petition to turn a tract of questionable land into a planned community and the plight of illegal immigrants who end up trapped in a cycle of forced labor), and a nicely understated romance (between Danny and Nora) to spice things up.

Silver City may startle some viewers because it doesn't pull punches. It doesn't pretend that politics and business are decoupled, that the little guy can pull off the upset, or that the bottom line is anything other than money. It's refreshing, albeit grim, to see a movie that's not afraid of telling these truths. That Sayles is able to say these things in the context of a compelling story with well-defined characters makes this one of the early fall triumphs of 2004.

It can be convincingly argued that John Waters' oeuvre is an acquired taste. If that's the case, I haven't yet acquired it. I view Waters as a pre-adolescent male in a state of arrested development. He is obsessed with what kids snickeringly refer to as "potty humor," and his movies reek of it. Rather than being incisive or challenging, they're merely vulgar and offensive. (And it takes a lot to offend me…) There's nothing in Waters' latest, A Dirty Shame, to rival his most infamous cinematic moment (Divine eating a turd in Pink Flamingos), but there's some pretty gross stuff. The title is apropos.

Waters' sole agenda with this movie is to argue that America's views of sexuality are screwed up. He won't get any argument from me, but isn't this a tad too obvious, not to mention limiting, for a feature length motion picture? A Waters trademark has never been subtlety, and, true to form, he barrels ahead with a sledgehammer approach. There are no characters here, just broad caricatures on both sides of the issue: the "sex addicts" (who believe in free sex, anytime, anywhere) and the "neuters" (who believe that "sex" is a dirty word). The story is trite and uninteresting. And the humor is only occasionally funny, and that's largely because it's almost impossible not to be impressed by Tracey Ullman's manic energy.

Ullman plays Sylvia Stickles, a middle-aged woman who believes that sex is only for perverts. Her attitude makes that of the Reverend Billy Graham seem hedonistic by comparison. Sylvia's husband, Vaughn (Chris Issak), has become so desperate for physical release that he hides in the bathroom and masturbates. When Sylvia catches him in the act, she is disgusted. Sylvia's daughter, Caprice (Selma Blair), a stripper whose stage name is "Ursula Udders" (appropriate considering the size of her breasts, which make Dolly Parton's look small and perky), is under house arrest after her third conviction of public indecency. And Sylvia's mother, Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd), is organizing a citizen's decency rally to stamp out homosexuality and public lewdness. Then, one morning, Sylvia suffers a concussion. While she is still dazed, the mysterious Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville) arrives, preaching sexual liberation. Suddenly, Sylvia becomes a sex addict, putting her in conflict with her repressed mother. And the battle lines are drawn in the war of sexual liberation on Hartford Road.

A Dirty Shame opens effectively, with a shot of a typical suburban house. Cheerful, '50-style sitcom music plays in the background while birds chirp contentedly. Inside, scrapple is frying in a pan. Unfortunately, after this set-up, which could have been lifted out of a David Lynch picture, it's down hill. Despite the film's obvious satirical bent, it's rarely funny, and some of the big "laughs" are more disgusting than humorous. (A man with a scatological fetish uses a woman's purse for a toilet. She reaches in to get her medicine and…) For roughly 30 minutes, A Dirty Shame is tolerable. After that, it becomes increasingly grating until it comes painfully close to being unwatchable. To get through the entire movie, you'll need a warped sense of humor and a strong stomach, or an unshakable affinity for John Waters. Anyone else will be as put off as I was.

Tracey Ullman is a bright spot in an otherwise sordid, murky production. Ullman does as much as she can with her character, and, for a while, Sylvia is enough to carry the film. But, after about a half-hour, even her charm wears thin. Selma Blair gets to wear what may be the biggest prosthetic breasts ever used in a motion picture. Kudos to the makeup department - they look real. But this is another joke that rapidly loses its comedic value. Seeing tiny Blair with such huge jugs is only funny at first. Johnny Knoxville (the "Jackass" guy) bears an uncanny resemblance to Timothy Olyphant. A few Waters "regulars" have roles, including Ricki Lake, Patricia Hearst, and Mink Stole.

© 2004 James Berardinelli

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