The Ring Is Incoherent, Chilling-And Naomi Watts Looks Great

Gore Verbinski’s The Ring , from a screenplay by Ehren Kruger, is not some Wagnerian operatic film, as its title might suggest, but rather a remake of a 1998 box-office bonanza of a Japanese horror film entitled Ringu , directed by Hideo Nakata, from a book by Kôji Suzuki, who is celebrated as the Stephen King of Japan. I’ve never seen the Japanese version, but I have read that Mr. Verbinski’s English-language remake retains the two modern inventions serving as instruments of fear and shock in the original: a telephone with the loudest and most jarring rings you are ever likely to hear on any soundtrack, and the fateful and fatal videocassette that condemns anyone watching it to die in seven days. One can only speculate about the malignant associations that Japanese audiences are prepared to attribute to such modern intrusions into their ancient culture as telephones and videocassettes, which serve as the tools of evil avengers from the land of the dead.

In this respect, Mr. Verbinski’s production of The Ring probably received the green light from the financial powers-that-be on the basis of the phenomenal international commercial success of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999), which, like The Ring , asks us to believe that the dead can come back to haunt us from the grave. Come to think of it, there was a crucial videocassette in The Sixth Sense as well.

Unfortunately, The Ring is not nearly as coherent and consistent as The Sixth Sense , which finally did make some internal sense in that the end did not contradict everything that had gone before. By contrast, Mr. Verbinski and Mr. Kruger seem to make up new rules as they go along, with the result that at the final fade-out we are left hanging, able to figure out neither what else is about to happen, nor exactly what has already happened and who is responsible for it.

Still, I found The Ring moderately absorbing, largely for its elegantly colorful look and sound, for which I must thank the direction of Mr. Verbinski, the cinematography of Bojan Bazelli, theproductiondesignofTom Duffield, the editing of Craig Wood, the costume design of Julie Weiss, the music by Hans Zimmer, the visual-effects supervision of Charles Gobson, and the ghastly and ghostly special makeup effects by the renowned Rick Baker. But let’s face it: These days I’ll go to anything with rising star Naomi Watts in it. Here she does not disappoint, though her role as Rachel, a perpetually overwrought investigative journalist and single mother, is hardly worthy of the break-out talents she displayed in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001). Nonetheless, she gives a charmingly good-sport, I’ll-scream-on-cue performance to jolly things along. She is handicapped somewhat by having to tend to David Dorfman’s inadequately calibrated performance as Aidan, a creepy child character shamelessly patterned after Haley Joel Osment’s uncanny turns in both The Sixth Sense and Steven Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001).

The Ring begins with two teenage friends, Katie (Amber Tamblyn) and Becca (Rachael Bella), hanging out in an unattended home and schmoozing about a mysterious tape that Katie had seen with her boyfriend Josh a week before, after which the phone rang and Katie was told that she would die in seven days. The phone rings again after Becca has left Katie alone downstairs, and as we later learn, Katie dies mysteriously, with a ghoulishly contorted expression of horror on her face. We learn that Katie’s boyfriend Josh has also died just as mysteriously, as have another teenage couple-all four deaths supposedly following the showing of the mysterious tape. For her part, Becca is trundled off to an insane asylum after having discovered Katie’s body the next morning.

After all this hullabaloo, Ms. Watt’s Rachel, Katie’s aunt, enters the scene to attend her niece’s funeral and listen to her sister’s plea that she get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding all four fatalities. Rachel is initially skeptical of the videotape rumor, but when she accidentally discovers the tape and proceeds to screen it, the phone rings, and her death sentence is pronounced for seven days hence. What alarms her even more is that her son has stumbled upon the tape and seen it, too-and, even more ominously, knows much more about Katie’s death than all the grownups. Suddenly gripped by constant hysteria, Rachel calls upon Noah (Martin Henderson), her former lover and Aidan’s father, to help her solve the puzzle. Noah has always been level-headed, as well as an expert in all forms of electronic communications, though also a bit too cynical and irresponsible for Rachel’s taste.

All this character information is imparted on the fly, amid innumerable ringings of the phone and screenings of the tape, with its signature opening of a “ring” consisting of two ominously concentric circles which is eventually shown to represent a well cover concealing an old crime that is the key to the mystery. The pacing remains frantically kinetic, with the camera huffing and puffing to keep up with terrified humans fleeing from or rushing toward the frightening unknown. As the contents of the tape are explored for clues to the mortal curse, a strange spectacle of crazed horses on a horse farm owned by Richard and Anne Morgan (Brian Cox and Shannon Cochran) begins to dominate the screen. Madness spreads like a plague from the Morgans to their horses, and to their hallucinatory daughter Samara, a name with an Arabic connotation of death. Through this maze, more metaphysical than metaphorical, Rachel soldiers on with Noah at her side, until the horror engulfs them both. Could this be a parable about the mind-numbing violence and psychosis of the times in which we live and die, as if we were all accursed? Perhaps I’ve seen one “down” movie too many, and The Ring is it. I should add that Jane Alexander, as Dr. Grasnik, makes a late but welcome entrance to clarify and stabilize the tottering narrative, but she is soon gone, and the film is left free to plunge into chaos.

Ambitious Gay Love

Ventura Pons’ Food for Love , from David Leavitt’s novel The Page Turner , is one of many recent movies with explicitly gay protagonists involved in various stages of soft-core seduction and promiscuity. We have come a long way from the days more than a century ago when homosexuality of the male variety was synonymous with decadence and depravity in plays like The Green Bay Tree and novels like The Servant . I stress the “male variety” of gayness, because there seems to be a double standard for straight males when it comes to watching two men perform on the screen ( ugh! ) as opposed to two women ( ahh! ). Perhaps the former is more threatening than the latter. After all, guys have enough problems, what with all the current psychobabble about homoeroticism in the most sacred male group activities and buddy relationships.

As for Food for Love , I haven’t read Mr. Leavitt’s novel nor seen any of Mr. Pons’ previous films, and I don’t know the burgeoning category of gay and lesbian cinema as well as I might or should. But I suspect that there are more interesting ways of dealing with the subject-if, indeed, gayness is the subject of Food for Love , interwoven as it is with the themes of careerism in the classical-music world and the painful relationship between a gay son and his square mother.

Kevin Bishop plays Paul Porterfield, an 18-year-old hunk of a piano student given the opportunity to serve as a page-turner for his idol, world-famous pianist Richard Kennington (Paul Rhys), at the peak of his career professionally but on the decline emotionally.

Paul is accompanied everywhere by his ditheringly devoted and ambitious mother, Pamela Porterfield (the marvelously overqualifiedJuliet Stevenson), whose unseen husband is about to leave her for another woman as the film begins, causing her to cling ever more tenaciously to her son. The absence of a father figure in Paul’s life provides what little motivation of the Penguin-edition Freud variety there is in Paul’s intense infatuation with Kennington and his own gay promiscuity.

At Kennington’s concert, Paul is first approached by Joseph Mansourian (Allan Corduner), Kennington’smiddle-aged agent and long-time lover. Paul deflects Mansourian’s advances and seemingly concentrates on letting himself be seduced by Kennington.

Suddenly, the action shifts fromSanFranciscoto Barcelona (instead of Rome, as in the book), where Paul and Pamela are sightseeing when Paul discovers that Kennington has just given a concert in the city. Paul rushes to the pianist’s hotel and resumes their affair. Pamela assumes that Paul and Kennington are just friends with a mutual passion for music. But Kennington soon tires of Paul and his mother as a steady social diet, and returns suddenly, like the creature of impulse he is, to his home base in New York.

When Paul starts Juilliard, he is soon heartbroken to discover that he is not talented enough to become a concert pianist, but he finally resigns himself to a humbler existence and a genuinely closer and more honest relationship with his mother, who at last accepts her son for what he is by telling him the mythological story of Ganymede as a sign of her enlightenment. I can’t help thinking that these gay themes are treated more persuasively in the insightful HBO series Six Feet Under , simply because gay characters are seen more realistically as part of a predominantly straight world. Even so, the melodious msuic of Food for Love almost justifies the title’s invocation of the opening benediction by Orsino in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night .

Vintage Clouzot

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Quai des Orfèvres (1947), from a screenplay by Clouzot (1907-1977) and Jean Ferry, based on the novel Legitime Defense by Stanislas A. Steeman, was released in New York in 1948 under the gamier title of Jenny Lamour , but was never taken seriously over here because the genre prejudices of the time decreed that a film noir or policier or detective-story musical-all of which Clouzot’s opus can claim to be-lacked sufficient social significance to qualify as a serious form of cinematic expression. Looking at this flick today, one can surmise that Clouzot was a little bit ahead of his time in some respects, and very much of his time in others. For example, Clouzot’s pre–Marshall Plan Paris was still suffering from food shortages, as reflected by a character’s receiving some black-market liquid butter in a clandestine operation.

Most of the action takes place at night, inasmuch as the milieu is one of nightclubs with circus acts as well as late-night love nests. Louis Jouvet’s Detective-Lieutenant Antoine is investigating the murder of a lecherous “producer” named Brignon (Charles Dullin). The main suspect is Maurice Martineau (Bernard Blier, father of director Bertrand Blier), husband and piano accompanist for his sexy songbird, Marguerite Martineau, a.k.a. Jenny Lamour, her stage name. Aside from leading Brignon on to secure a movie contract-and thus making her husband insanely jealous-Jenny is openly adored by her best friend, the lesbian photographer Dora Monier (Simone Renant). This was scorchingly hot stuff for Production Code–controlled Hollywood in 1948, as was Antoine’s little African boy, the only result of his colonial duties as a former Foreign Legionnaire of which he remains proud. Lesbianism and miscegenation! Call the Legion of Decency!

The mystery isn’t much, and the songs aren’t much more. Suzy Delair is now almost completely forgotten, and she doesn’t even indulge in one of the brazen topless scenes with which French filmmakers were already teasing their audiences way back in the 1930’s. Still, Quai des Orfèvres is vintage Clouzot, dark, gloomy and misanthropic, with casually sadistic police-interrogation scenes that remind us still that the Paris police have always made an Okefenokee swamp sheriff over here look like a member of the ACLU. The Film Forum is to be congratulated for bringing this fun movie classic back to our attention.