In a summer where the most important event may turn out to be the release of the magically restored version of Gone With the Wind , here are a few of the new second-tier entries.
Dedicated to the theory that you aren’t getting your weekly allowance of trash on television, the makers of The X-Files are now dumping more garbage on a shopping mall cinema near you. Will the 20 million viewers of this cult show come back for more? Will new converts figure out what the hell the whole damn thing is about? Will Mulder and Scully, the F.B.I. agents who specialize in aliens, monsters and other paranormal phenomena nobody else can explain or identify, finally put down their autopsy scalpels long enough to kiss? Will the five-year “conspiracy theory” at last be revealed? Does anybody care?
Morphing a TV show onto the large screen to the tune of $63 million is risky business, and in my opinion the terrific sound effects, monster makeup and breakneck-tempo editing still can’t disguise the fact that The X-Files movie is nothing more than a two-hour TV special. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are on hand as Mulder and Scully, jockeying for fame as movie stars so they can finally graduate from the small-screen roles they keep saying they’re sick of in interviews. When the movie opens, the X-Files have been closed, and they’re bored with routine F.B.I. assignments like tracking down ordinary terrorists. They long for the good old days, and they don’t have to wait long. A government building in Dallas is blown up in a tasteless reminder of the Oklahoma City bombing, and they smell a weird plot coming on. They’re right.
Get this: The bombing is a cover-up for a dastardly plan to breed a deadly virus from extraterrestrial Godzillas brought to this planet before the dinosaurs that have been lying dormant since the last Ice Age in an underground cave beneath the state of Texas! Now the virus is being spread by African honeybees in a Texas cornfield planted by a trilateral government conspiracy run by hokey creeps with foreign accents. Unfazed by bullets, bee stings, exploding limousines, empty gas tanks, lack of sleep and jet lag, it’s up to Mulder and Scully to save the world while the movie bounces from Texas to London to the frozen wastes of Antarctica. Just what is going on here? “If I quit now, they win,” says Scully. But it’s never clear just who “they” are. The movie actually devotes 10 minutes and 30 seconds to a scene in which the Well-Manicured Man character finally explains the conspiracy theory behind the alien virus that has kept devotees of the TV show in suspense for five years, and it still doesn’t make sense.
There’s much talk of protein codes, causative microbes and gestating clones, but the actors who talk the talk look as baffled as the audience. When Mulder urinates on a movie poster of Independence Day , you know nobody is taking any of this alien stuff seriously. While real actors like Blythe Danner, Martin Landau and Armin Mueller-Stahl are dragged in to add some class, the real stars prove they’re not yet ready for the big-screen sweepstakes. Gillian Anderson could be anybody in a college yearbook, and David Duchovny is a summer-stock Harrison Ford with one humorless, deadpan facial expression that resembles a blank page. On the big screen, there’s so much more of them that I never knew I could miss commercials so much.
I wouldn’t call a movie this full of gimmicks and noise boring, but all The X-Files adds up to is a $63 million movie for paranoid geeks that asks its 20 million fans to plunk down money to see what they’ve been getting for the past five years for free. Not that this will deter the show’s creators. In the end, Mulder and Scully see the future, and it looks like a sequel.
Hollywood’s Last Commissary
Jack Lemmon remarks tearfully, “You can mark the changing of all eras in this industry by the closing of restaurants,” and the voice of Jimmy Durante is heard singing “I’ll Be Seeing You” as a hearse cruises past the shuttered doors of Chasen’s. These are just two of the brilliant, telling moments in Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen’s , a poignant documentary about the closing of Hollywood’s most glamorous watering hole for 60 years. When the lights went out on April 1, 1995, people mourned openly, but, fortunately, two gifted filmmakers, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, were on hand to record every minute of the passing of a commissary for the rich and famous that was more than an institution. Chasen’s was a way of life.
You get the history of its founder, Dave Chasen, a vaudeville ham who learned the cooking trade in Frank Capra’s kitchen, and his wife Maude and his grandson Scott, who fought to keep the place going when times changed and the movie stars switched to trendier spots on the social stem. But the glorious past is recalled in clips and still photos: Richard Nixon dining with the producers of Laugh-In ; Pepe the bartender squeezing the oil from an orange rind to light the sherry in the house drink called Flame of Love; Raymond Bilbool, the flamboyant banquet manager from Burma, arrogant and demanding and reverent about no one; Onetta Johnson, the ladies’ room attendant who knows where all the bodies are buried and who became the inspiration for Donna Summer’s hit song “She Works Hard for the Money.”
The whole world of chafing dishes and sternos and polished silver soup tureens comes alive to the music of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, who made Chasen’s their clubhouse. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton ordered the famous chili flown to every movie location in the world. The nonalcoholic Shirley Temple drink was invented here for the moppet star, and the regulars on the wall who made Chasen’s their home include everybody who was anybody, from Clark Gable to Greta Garbo. As soon as the death announcement hit the press, reservations were sold out months in advance. Armed guards were hired to prevent the diners from stealing the photos from the walls and the lamps from the table. And most of the stars came home.
They’re all here, along with the candid staff, and the waiters serving Chasen’s menu favorite, the world-renowned Hobo Steak, sautéed in a swimming pool of butter. In the final days, a golden era that will come no more is relived as Sharon Stone eulogizes: “The wrong people have taken over.” Off the Menu is priceless history encapsulated on film. The demise of Chasen’s, it becomes painfully clear, is a metaphor for the downfall of the film industry that made it famous.
The First X-Files Movie
Finally, the best new film of 1998 is the best new film of 1975. With the roaring success of The Truman Show , a renewed interest in its Australian director, Peter Weir, has inspired the Film Forum to bring back Picnic at Hanging Rock , a beguiling mystery of mind over matter which I still consider his finest film. It’s a remarkable work, chilling and hypnotic, and doubly disturbing because it is so delicately performed and sensitively directed, with camera work in the paintbrush style of Elvira Madigan. It is St. Valentine’s Day in Australia (February is summertime “down under”), the year is 1900, and a party of virginal schoolgirls from an exclusive finishing school are giddily preparing for a picnic excursion to a strange, sloping, Neolithic aboriginal holy monument 40 miles from Melbourne, a monolith that has become known as the Australian Stonehenge. Three students and one of the teachers disappear without a trace, and the subsequent search, interrogations of witnesses, amnesia of one of the girls who is later found, and the strange marks on the foreheads of the picnic survivors add eerie fascination to the story and its strange effect on the young ladies and their schoolmistress (brilliantly played by Rachel Roberts), resulting in a suicide and another disappearance.
The events are said to be true, but the reasons for the mystery have receded into history and remained obscured by conjecture and superstition. It’s a ghost story played in blazing sunshine, and Peter Weir provides no solution. Life is full of these unsolved mysteries (Judge Crater, Amelia Earhart, the John F. Kennedy assassination) and what makes this one so special is that it allows us to fit our own pieces into the puzzle. A feeling of doom and helplessness in the air pervades the pristine sweetness of the girls in their gestures and the deliberately laconic pace of their activity. What Mr. Weir conveys from first frame to last is the awful presence of the unknown. He denies us the comforting reassurance of speculation. There it is, he says-the inscrutable. Occasionally, life’s hidden power surfaces in the rosebud beauty of the girls in their white Victorian petticoats, in the sexual repression of the teachers, in the rock’s connection to aboriginal mysticism. Still, Picnic at Hanging Rock depends greatly on the imagination we can bring to it.
Despite Ms. Roberts’ life of classical symmetry and flawless order, her inability to explain things tidily results in a breakdown. Instead of solving the mystery, she gets apotheosis, and the effect is cinematically stunning. Picnic at Hanging Rock is a film about life in all of its provocative lushness, with an intelligent ear to the rumble of the inexplicable forces beneath. What we know of life, Mr. Weir says, are only signs of the unknown forces that feed us energy, like volcanoes pushed up out of the sea-everywhere, the characters are alive, either brimming with vitality or tortured with repressed eroticism. All elements meld into a spellbinding mystery fueled by awe and wonder. Picnic at Hanging Rock is at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, from June 26 to July 9.