Too Much R-Rated History Is What’s Hurting The Patriot

Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot , from a screenplay by Robert Rodat, seems to have inspired a curiously wide range of reactions covering many shades of opinion on the political spectrum. Some conservative columnists friendly to the National Rifle Association have hailed the movie for reminding us of the crucial role played by the local militia in taking up arms against the British colonial oppressors. Mel Gibson’s Benjamin Martin is a composite of several Southern “swamp fox” guerrilla figures, 18th-century versions of the Viet Cong, who made life hell for the more orderly redcoats. Even Martin’s small children are recruited to fire muskets at the enemy, and do so with deadly accuracy.

Not that Martin is insufficiently provoked to rampage through the British ranks with a deadly tomahawk he inherited from the French and Indian War, a savage bloodbath that left him with strong pacifist convictions. Forget about “taxation without representation” or “Give me liberty or give me death”-Martin refuses to fight the British until his own family’s blood is spilled through the Nazi-like brutality of Col. William Tavington (Jason Isaacs). Mr. Emmerich and Mr. Rodat seem to want to have it both ways by first preaching against war with 20th-century rhetoric, then demonstrating its ferocity in graphic and often ghoulish detail that makes the pitifully few previous screen treatments of the American Revolution look like tea-party pageants.

Much has been made of Mr. Emmerich’s German nationality, particularly in Britain, where a boycott has been threatened because of the film’s excessive Anglophobia at a time when the United States and Britain are so close that the centrist policies of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair are in embarrassingly symmetrical alignment. Historians claim that the scene in which Tavington herds suspected patriots-men, women and children-into a church and then orders a subordinate to set the building afire refers back in fact not to the American Revolution but to a Nazi SS atrocity in France in 1944.

Any defense of The Patriot must take into account Mr. Emmerich’s blockbuster reputation: His interplanetary Independence Day broke all box-office records when it opened on the July 4, 1996 weekend after a six-month publicity campaign. To juice The Patriot up to the commercial level of Independence Day required at least a stab at pitting good against evil.

But what The Patriot lacks that Independence Day had in profusion is co-protagonists-jet jockey Will Smith and macho President Bill Pullman-kicking alien ass in multiracial harmony. Here, Mr. Emmerich and Mr. Rodat have to dance gingerly around the issue of slavery in America by making Mr. Gibson’s character a Great Emancipator before his time. The movie also very intelligently reminds us that many colonists did not want to be separated from the mother country, and that British aristocrats like Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson) considered the colonists his future brethren as well as subjects of the crown. Thus, it is likely not bad history that makes The Patriot reportedly less popular than The Perfect Storm , but too much history.

Also hurting is that rare R rating for pure, unadulterated violence, without a trace of sex, nudity or four-letter words. As it is, Mr. Gibson and Mr. Isaacs put on a better show, mano à mano , than Tom Cruise and Dougray Scott manage in M:I-2 . Finally, Mr. Rodat may have outsmarted himself with the sophisticates in the audience by inserting a scene in which Cornwallis foresees a loyalist America dominated by large landowners, as if our own Founding Fathers were a mob of closet Marxist-Leninists.

Going Home

Zhang Yang’s Shower , from a screenplay by Liu Fen Dou, Mr. Yang, Huo Xin, Diao Yi Nan and Cai Xiang Jun, induces in Western audiences the familiar nostalgia for a simpler, sweeter, non-high-tech past within the context of an awkward family reunion. Da Ming (Pu Cun Xin) is a successful businessman in the New China. After receiving a crudely drawn postcard from his retarded brother Er Ming (Jiang Wu), Da Ming suspects that his elderly father, Master Liu (Zhu Xu), has died. He rushes home to the decaying neighborhood in old Beijing where he grew up-and from which he fled in a burst of careerist emotion.

He discovers, however, that his father is actually alive and well as the proprietor of an old-fashioned bathhouse with all the amenities for its colorful geezer clientele. The old and the new are satirically contrasted by the modern shower Da Ming takes in a grotesque car-wash-type contraption serving as a time-saving rebuke to the more leisurely full-bath ceremonies presided over by Master Liu. The cards are stacked in familiar old Hollywood fashion against the go-getter from the big city, who has lost touch with the warmer, friendlier life he has left behind. Da Ming has never told his wife about his retarded brother, who becomes as obtrusively “heartwarming” as his counterpart in the recent Mifune , not to mention Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-winning idiot savant in Rain Man (1988).

I must confess that I found all the tiny, ritualized subplots centered on the venerable bathhouse laboriously cute. The repressed, virtually tongue-tied Beijing bumpkin who can sing with dreadful sincerity “O Sole Mio” only when water is pouring down on him is one of the more tedious contrivances devised to make us feel vaguely guilty for the billions of people not quite ready for prime time. Nor was I particularly moved or charmed by the old men who compete with each other by racing their pet crickets. With the bathhouse scheduled to be torn down for a shopping mall and some high-rise housing, the cricket-fanciers lament that their pets couldn’t handle the heights. I don’t want to invoke compassion fatigue at this point, but there is a limit to the number of life’s changes I can mourn.

Still, the eminent anthropologist Lionel Tiger has championed Shower as an eloquent protest against the global-free-trade euphoria over the New Economy that is stranding so many people in the ‘hoods, the ghettos and the backwaters. Nonetheless, I found the movie slick and facile, despite its good intentions.

The Cure for Homosexuality

Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader , from a screenplay by Brian Wayne Peterson, based on a story by Ms. Babbit, is described in the production notes as “a candy-colored satire about the absurdity of ‘curing’ homosexuality.” The humanist premise of the movie is acceptable, but what kind of audience finds this degree of caricature and stereotyping at all amusing? And even as harmless camp, it is not as well constructed as it should be.

Natasha Lyonne’s Megan plays a popular cheerleader with good grades and a football-team captain as a boyfriend. Nonetheless, the ominous “but” in the title suggests that Megan is living in a fool’s paradise. Why else should her mind flash to the sports bras and exposed underwear of her ebullient colleagues when she is enduring one of her boyfriend’s slobberingly inexpert tongue-kisses. And why does she keep girl pinups in her locker? For the same reason, I suppose, that Sal Mineo kept a bare-chested pinup of Alan Ladd in his locker back in the more subtextual days of Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955), with James Dean and Natalie Wood waving the banner of sentimental heterosexuality.

Before Megan knows what’s hit her, she is exposed as a lesbian and whisked away to a homo-rehab camp called True Directions, presided over by a supposedly straight dominatrix named (with suspicious blandness) Mary Brown and played by Cathy Moriarty without a trace of mischievous irony. The male camp commandant is a reformed gay man named Mike, played out of drag by the celebrated transvestite RuPaul Charles. Thus, from the beginning we are cued that Megan’s is not a sexual Dreyfus case in which she is trying to prove her innocence to the charge of lesbianism. Instead, once she meets Clea DuVall’s Graham, the dazzled Megan begins to revel and rejoice in her guilt with the only sincerely erotic sex scenes in the film. The rest is arch posturing and silly simulations, with Mary Brown on hand to ridicule heterosexual foreplay as stuff for sissies. The rehab-camp’s “final exam” is a study in humorless idiocy.

More years ago than I care to remember, I wrote a mildly homophobic article in The Village Voice entitled “Heteros Have Problems, Too,” and I thought I would never hear the end of it. What I was complaining about were what I then perceived as the excesses of gay self-pity. This was well before the onset of AIDS changed the ground rules of such discussions forever. Today, I am much older, and not all that much wiser on the subject. Indeed, I have encountered over the years so many effete heterosexuals and so many muscular homosexuals that I have stopped assuming that I can tell the difference.

But as gay and lesbian attachments become more commonplace and less exotic on the screen and off, the old power factors come into play once more as troublesome obstacles to universal happiness. Straight or gay, Megan and Graham are attractive enough to pick and choose. Still, nothing is easy, least of all the elective affinities. That is why the old narratives never die.