She’s Gonna Knock You Out, Starting With Her Father

Karyn Kusama’s Girlfight shared the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, and also won the Director’s Prize. For once, the advance buzz has been amply justified, thanks to an extraordinarily charismatic film debut by a non-professional named Michelle Rodriguez. Even so, Girlfight will be a tough sell, especially for women viewers, even the professedly feminist ones. From a female perspective, boxing itself is bad enough as a brutishly violent subject, but a woman in the ring- except as a cheerleader-type round-recorder- is a no-no for audiences, both male and female, and a minority heroine adds additional obstacles at the box office.

It’s too bad, because Ms. Kusama and Ms. Rodriguez have collaborated on a stirring portrait of a young woman with so many bottled-up aggressions in her psyche that she can release them only in the fight ring. Ms. Kusama, who was a fighter herself and was once knocked out in a match, wisely keeps the rise of Diana (Ms. Rodriguez) in the ring within believable parameters. Hence, the final freeze frame of the movie finds Diana consoling Adrian (Santiago Douglas), both the great love of her life and the guy she has just beaten with her left hook over his right cross. In a macho world, he has been unmanned by the woman he loves. It is a high price for Diana to pay in order to gain professional recognition, but the fierce expression in her eyes shows that she is more than willing to pay it.

Ms. Kusama’s account of how she came to cast a complete unknown provides a new chapter on casting theory. It seems that Ms. Rodriguez gave one of the worst line-readings of any of the applicants at the audition, though Ms. Kusama was impressed with her “physical power.” Normally one would expect a casting director to take the best line-reader, and then have her work out so that she could meet the physical demands of the part. Ms. Kusama chose the opposite route and gave Ms. Rodriguez acting lessons. Of course, it helped that Ms. Rodriguez turned out to be a “natural” with intensely revelatory expressions that you can’t learn in acting school. Indeed, her face turns out to be the map of her young life, and she gives the film a sociological authenticity that goes beyond any scriptwriter’s imagination. From her high school scenes, in which she manages to isolate herself from her girlfriends, to her emotional releases in the ring, Diana is a marvel of shifting mood. Watch as she literally smolders with jealousy after she sees her beloved flirting with another woman. Her incredible eyes do most of the work, and her instincts do the rest.

Diana is given enough of a case history to provide motivation for her career as a boxer. Her mother committed suicide because she was abused by Diana’s father (Paul Calderon), who pays for boxing lessons for her brother (Ray Santiago). Ironically, her brother is a tender soul with artistic inclinations and a total flop as a fighter. Sent by her father one day to pay for her brother’s lesson, Diana becomes enraptured by the atmosphere in the local gym. Through Diana’s dazed eyes, Ms. Kusama expresses her own lyrical feelings toward the fight game. Like Joyce Carol Oates, she sees a heroic spectacle where many of the rest of us see only cruel violence and crooked exploitation.

When Diana’s brother offers to give her the boxing fees from their father, Diana is launched on her career. Ms. Kusama creates an unusually benign atmosphere in which Diana can flourish as a fighter, but she knows more about the milieu than I do. In any event, Diana becomes self-confident enough to avenge her mother by beating up her father during a family squabble. There is no follow-up to this traumatic violence, and the viewer is left to wonder if there is any reconciliation in the offing.

As for the freeze-frame ending, it was first made cinematically fashionable by François Truffaut in The 400 Blows (1959). Truffaut explained it as a device to suggest a slice of life and time with no formal ending. In this context, Diana may not know where she is going, but she has made us wish the best for her, in both her life and her art.

They’re Not Actors, And He’s No Stanislavsky

Rob Nilsson’s Chalk , from a screenplay by Mr. Nilsson and Don Bajema, is so far out of the mainstream it splashes. Actually, Mr. Nilsson is as much a political activist as he is a filmmaker (if not more ), and you know how well that type of hothead fares in Hollywood.

According to Ephraim Katz’s Film Encyclopedia , Mr. Nilsson was born in the U.S. of Norwegian descent. After graduating from Harvard as an English major, he joined the Peace Corps, wrote poetry and painted before turning to filmmaking in the mid-70’s. Joining a left-wing filmmakers’ collective, he directed three documentaries about farmers, out of which grew his much-honored Northern Lights (co-directed with John Hanson, 1979). I have yet to see this film, about the travails of Norwegian farmers in pre–World War I North Dakota, but this low-budget production won the Camera D’Or Prize at the Cannes Film Festival for Best First Film, a fact which didn’t open any doors to the film financiers. Mr. Nilsson went the route of improvisation and videotape to assemble his next three efforts, On the Edge , Signal Seven (both in 1986) and Heat of Sunlight (1987). I am not boasting when I confess that I have not yet seen any of these films, either. I am just suggesting how far out on the margins of theatrical distribution Mr. Nilsson has found himself on his hardscrabble path to his 60’s in the new millennium.

Chalk , a lower-depths saga of poolroom hustlers, has been likened to Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961) and Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money (1986), but without any actors you’d recognize. To be honest, I don’t know what Chalk is about in terms of the usual dramatic conventions. Certain faces recur more than others, but the camera work is so close-up and claustrophobic that I am never quite sure where I am and why, and whose story is being told and from whose point of view. An Asian-American face seems to be linked to the action on the various pool tables from beginning to end, but the Big Game turns out to be more abstract than dramatic. As for the women in the film, they seem to be omnipresent without being dramatically decisive.

Much of the cast was recruited from San Francisco’s homeless population through a program known as the Tenderloin Action Group, founded by Mr. Nilsson in August 1991. Much of the dialogue was improvised from the raw material of the homeless actors’ lives. It ain’t exactly Stanislavsky, in that what should have remained acting exercises in a class find their way directly to the screen, unfiltered by the refined barroom sensibility of a Eugene O’Neill. Still, when one of the characters spits blood, I feel that it’s real blood, and that I am as close to the pain and suffering of the actor as I am to the character. I cannot say that I am partial to this degree of hyper-realism, and hence, Chalk is not my kind of movie. I am not surprised that the late John Cassavetes was an ardent champion of Mr. Nilsson’s work. It is certainly something different, and I recommend it very tentatively on that ground, and on that ground alone. Meanwhile, I have to make it a point to fill myself in on the rest of Mr. Nilsson’s oeuvre , painfully extracted as it has been from the world around him.

An Encore For All About Eve

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950) is being revived at the Film Forum in a newly restored 50th anniversary print. Back in 1950, it won both the New York Film Critics’ Award and the Academy Award as Best Picture. Mankiewicz won for direction and screenplay, and George Sanders (as the ultimate critic, Addison DeWitt) won for best supporting actor- but, much to the dismay of many people, Bette Davis as Margo Channing lost her bid for a third Oscar to Judy Holliday in George Cukor and Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday . My vote, then and now, would have gone to Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard , a movie I preferred, then and now, to All About Eve . In my revisionist period in the 60’s, I ranked John Ford’s Wagonmaster and Rio Grande , Carol Reed and Graham Greene’s The Third Man and John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle over both Eve and Sunset . How time has flown! A critic for Sight and Sound complained at the time that everyone in Eve finished their sentences before the next actor began a new sentence. There was no room for improvisation with such a tightly and brightly written script. The same was true of Sunset .

Ann Baxter was quite good also as the scheming Eve Harrington. I sympathized with the character a little bit because, after all, how did Margo hit the top in the first place except by stepping over one of her predecessors? Marilyn Monroe made her bimbo breakthrough here after scoring in The Asphalt Jungle . If you’ve never seen this classic, you’re in for a treat. And even if you have, you owe it to yourself to see it again.