One More Threesome; Filmmakers Avoiding the 90’s

Hermine Huntgeburth’s The Trio , from a screenplay by Horst Sczerba, Volker Einrauch and Ms. Huntgeburth, bounces along on the screen with a shifting array of attractions and affinities in line with the current mini-trend toward bisexual triangles. I wouldn’t recommend this film to Jerry Falwell, who has recently warned us of the peril to our children of purple Teletubbies carrying purses as the talismans of gay role models. But we movie reviewers are made of sterner stuff as we contemplate a plot that begins with Zobel (Götz George) and Karl (Christian Redl) as a trailer-home gay couple sharing quarters with Lizzie (Jeanette Hain), Zobel’s boyish daughter from what the production notes describe as a “heterosexual misadventure.” Take that, Jerry Falwell.

The three unorthodox standard-bearers of family values put food on the table by prowling around train stations as a team of well-synchronized pickpockets. Picking pockets not one’s own constitutes another recent mini-trend in my moviegoing, what with the Museum of Modern Art screenings of Robert Bresson’s sublime Pickpocket (1959) and Mel Gibson’s ridiculous catchpurse in the current Payback . In each instance, the comparatively petty crime of pickpocketing does not pay all that well, and is constantly fraught with danger and, even worse, embarrassment.

In The Trio , Karl begins losing his nerve and his health as he botches up the team’s routines. To replace Karl, Lizzie recruits Rudolf (Felix Eitner), a handsome young thief of her acquaintance, and the trio is thereby reconstituted, especially when Zobel’s roving eye tries to catch Rudolf’s once Karl has met his death. Lizzie, meanwhile, is becoming ever more aggressive in her attempts to lure the conveniently malleable Rudolf into her own bed.

This father-daughter rivalry takes on the comic aspects of froufrou French farce, but with the weightier gravitas of Germanic acting and bohemian perversity. The Trio is very kinetically directed, imparting a saving restlessness to the stock characters. Yet, both the criminal and sexual adventures of The Trio derive their entertainment value from the vicarious and voyeuristic escape they provide for the bourgeois class that is supposedly being shocked–shocked–by all the goings-on, but is instead being merely and pleasantly titillated.

The Past Part Is Perfect

Hugh Wilson’s Blast From the Past , from a screenplay by Bill Kelly and Mr. Wilson, is an amiable satire of Cold War survivalist anxiety during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. If anything, it is a timely reminder of the survivalist revival as Y2K looms nearer and nearer, and larger and larger. Of course, there will be no movies about Y2K until well into the next millennium when people can start feeling superior about the last days of 1999. All five Oscar nominees for best picture are set in the good and bad old days of World War II and the Elizabethan era, but where are the films of today? Lost somewhere, I suppose, between Sundance and the outer reaches of the Anglophone periphery.

Christopher Walken plays a brilliant scientist with an exaggerated fear of the Soviet Union (ha ha) to the point that he constructs an enormous fallout shelter under his San Fernando Valley ranch house for himself and his pregnant wife, played by Sissy Spacek. The night President Kennedy delivers his grim-faced Cuban missile speech, the scientist and his wife descend into the shelter, not to re-emerge for 35 years, during which time a boy is born, nurtured and educated until he grows up to look like Brendan Fraser in a slightly goofy, manly, courtly mode as befits a being isolated from the world outside his home for 35 years.

Here the laughs are not on us as much as on the poor fools of the early 60’s who took the Soviet Union seriously. Not surprisingly, the movie is at its best when it avails itself of the special talents of Mr. Walken and Ms. Spacek in creating exemplary parents with enough tics and quirks to avoid facile caricature. Indeed, the movie goes to pieces when it tries to break out into the present day for an unconvincing and poorly written romance between the nuclear shelter innocent and a supposedly hip chick of the 90’s played by the talented Alicia Silverstone, far more clueless here than she was in Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995), which did for Jane Austen what John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love has done for the Bard: make great art fun.

Despite its impressive production values and set design, Blast From the Past is not even as perceptive and entertaining a time machine vehicle as Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future (1985). This is not the fault of the actors. They manage a few laughs and chuckles out of virtually thin air. The problem is that the supposedly clever people in Hollywood have no clear idea what is going on in America today, much less what really went on back in 1962. It is only in the artificial environment of the fallout shelter that the characters can come to life, sympathetically unspoiled and uncorrupted by the deafening din outside created by the omnivorous and omnipresent media. The movie is also strangely sexless in the neo-Puritanical manner of the AIDS-scarred Hollywood mainstream. Oscar would be celibate if we didn’t have the Brits portraying the lusty Elizabethans.

Girls Just Want To Go Outside

Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple , based on a screenplay by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, is derived from a news story about a 65-year-old Iranian man with a blind wife and two 12-year-old twin daughters, whom he has kept in isolation their entire lives. The man found himself the object of scorn and ridicule in the neighborhood and the media beyond when his neighbors reported him. The situation improved slightly, but by the time Ms. Makhmalbaf, 19 years old, approached the family to appear in a film about their situation and what it revealed about the plight of women in Iran, the children still showed the ravages of their enforced isolation in their unpredictable outbursts of aggression and anxiety.

Their father incessantly complained about the unfair way he had been treated by the neighbors and the press. He loved his daughters too much to allow them to be defiled in the street. They were beautiful flowers who would wither in the sun. His wife was blind, and terrified of the outside world. What was he to do when he had to go out to get food from relatives and friends for his family? His wife needed her daughters to be near her.

The filmmaker is never judgmental, but she cannot take the camera lens off the two girls, and, in the end, their blind, veiled mother. She never closes in on faces if she can follow the whole person in heartbreakingly awkward and untaught movement. There is one intimate moment of exultation when one of the girls successfully turns a key in a lock to free her father.

The Apple is a difficult movie to describe in conventional terms. Apples figure largely in the metaphorical construction of the narrative. The girls yearn to eat them, but teasing, taunting boys keep them out of their grasp. One feels silly just sitting there watching the sheer transience of childish pranks and mischievous tantrums, and of apples dangling from a little boy’s string. And then The Apple concludes with a freeze frame of stirring compassion and spiritual awakening such as I am not likely ever to forget.

Italian Renaissance

Beginning on Feb. 18, the Museum of Modern Art is presenting the second installment of its popular series of postwar Italian films that somehow were never picked up for American distribution or that fell between the cracks of faltering exhibition when they were. On Feb. 18 at 2:30 P.M. and Feb. 21 at 4 P.M., the museum will show the 218-minute director’s cut of Sergio Leone’s Prohibition epic Once Upon a Time in America , starring Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Tuesday Weld, Treat Williams, Danny Aiello, Burt Young, Joe Pesci, William Forsythe, Jennifer Connelly and Darlanne Fleugel. I can remember a time when Leone (1929-1989) was dismissed as an overheated director of so-called “spaghetti westerns.” Overheated he may have seemed to the more timorous among us, but his monumental close-ups and corrida -like camera movements stay in the mind long after much of the more respectably and more significantly genteel cinema has faded into oblivion. What I remember most vividly from Once Upon a Time in America is the lyrical intensity devoted to the orgasmic experience of a little boy on a staircase, devouring a bag full of jelly doughnuts. Love him or hate him, Leone is imperishably there.

Other highlights of the series are Alberto Lattuada and Federico Fellini’s Variety Lights (1950), Fellini’s (1920-1993) directorial debut, and one of the halves of his 8 1 / 2 (1963). Mr. Lattuada is, of course, much less well known and less appreciated than Fellini, but I hope a Lattuada retrospective is not too far in the future to rescue him from an undeserved obscurity. The late great Marcello Mastroianni (1924-1998) is represented by three of his most incandescent performances: in Valerio Zurlini’s Family Diary (1962), Mario Monicelli’s The Organizer (1963) and Alessandro Blasetti’s Too Bad She’s Bad (1955), his first co-starring role with Sophia Loren. Our thanks are due to co-organizers of the series, Laurence Kardish of the museum, and Antonio Monda, filmmaker and professor of cinema at New York University.

One More Threesome; Filmmakers Avoiding the 90’s