Stuart Gordon’s Edmond, from a screenplay by David Mamet, based on his play, had been reportedly turned down by many mainstream studios before Gary Rubin’s First Independent Pictures took the plunge with this decidedly downbeat project. I can certainly understand the mainstream hesitations. I never saw Edmond in its original early-80’s theatrical version, and I therefore don’t know if the N-word and other racially derogatory terms were spoken onstage back then as often as they are in Mr. Gordon and Mr. Mamet’s current movie. I would like to say that we have come a long way in interracial understanding in the quarter-century since the racially charged Edmond made its first explosive statement on the stage. But when I hear rumors of white-supremacist graffiti on Baghdad walls, I’m not so sure.
The point is that the justly dreaded and despised N-word is brandished not by a self-confident African-American rap artist, but by a bigoted white middle-class character who is the titular protagonist of Edmond. William H. Macy, a Mamet regular on both stage and screen, plays Edmond Burke, a sketchily defined (and ironically named) businessman in his late 40’s, who is first seen leaving his office to go home. Before he can get into the elevator, however, he is handed a slip of paper by the receptionist, who informs him that the time for a meeting the next morning has been changed. For some unknown reason, he looks at the slip of paper as if it were the last straw—and when William Macy looks disgusted, it’s a clear sign that we’re in for a long evening. Edmond’s mood is not improved by the sight of two passengers locking lips in the elevator as the door opens on his floor.
When he gets home, his wife tells him angrily that the maid broke the lamp in their bedroom. That does it: He tells her that he’s fed up with her and with his job and is leaving both immediately. An argument ensues, in clipped, cross-cut, vintage-Mamet exchanges, between the oddly half-dressed husband and wife, who seem as if they’d been getting ready to go to a party. There is no back-story exposition to speak of, and we never do learn what Edmond has been doing at the office all these years—or, for that matter, what he’s been doing at home. He is thus captured in medias res, at the very peak of his midlife crisis—almost as if he were a character on a stage, as, indeed, he originally was.
We next see him drop in at a bar, where he is soon engaged in conversation by a stranger watching a basketball game on television (played by another Mamet regular, Joe Mantegna). The stranger freely uses the N-word to refer mock-admiringly to most of the players and the way they do what they want without any of the guilt or inhibitions that afflict us white men. Huh? Edmond nods in agreement and begins to expound on his own frustrations. With a lightning diagnosis, the stranger decides that it all comes down to sex, and he then hands Edmond a card from a nightclub where women are available for a price.
As Edmond descends into the neon-lit expressionistic hell of the sex industry, he haggles grotesquely over the prices demanded of him by a succession of impossibly good-looking harlots and their violent pimps. By this time, Edmond has shown himself to be clearly a jerk and a loser, to whom any member of a Mamet audience in either a legitimate theater or an art-film venue can feel comfortably superior.
After a while, I simply couldn’t empathize with Edmond and all his pain and suffering, and certainly not with all his exposed bigotries and delusions. The movie is minimally interesting because of its resolutely anti-Aristotelian method of dragging the audience to a forced contemplation of a less-than-worthless life punished in full (and then some). Yet I must say that, in the end, Mr. Gordon and Mr. Mamet certainly managed to even the score between Edmond and his African-American nemeses.
One of the most strikingly revelatory and almost funny scenes in the movie involves Julia Stiles, who plays Glenna, a beautiful, blond waitress-actress, first mesmerized and seduced by Edmond’s ranting and then horrified by his erupting madness. What eventually happens to Edmond, and how, you might not believe even if I told you, so I’m not going to tell you. You deserve the right to disbelieve it for yourself. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.
It suddenly occurs to me that I completely forgot an early scene that Edmond shares with a fortuneteller (Frances Bay), who confirms for him—and for us—what his facial expressions have already told us: that he is due for a change in his life’s companions, and that he is unfulfilled with those he has. It occurs to me in retrospect that the fortuneteller may have seen enough of Mr. Macy’s films to know that he is seldom happy, much less complacent, with his lot in life. Edmond is the ultimate Macy vehicle ad absurdum. Except for bits by Mr. Mantegna and Ms. Stiles, Mr. Macy is the whole show. Nonetheless, he was much more believably effective in Wayne Kramer’s The Cooler (2003), opposite Maria Bello and Alec Baldwin. The moral of Edmond is that too much of Mr. Macy is much more than the modal equilibrium of movies can bear. Hence, Edmond’s note of resignation at the end is veritably excruciating. One begins to wonder if the human race has any future at all. In these days, particularly, Edmond is the antithesis of escapism.
Deepa Mehta’s Water, from her own screenplay, has been lingering around New York art theaters for weeks and weeks purely on the word-of-mouth reports of delighted and emotionally moved moviegoers. Quite frankly, that’s how I got to see it: Everyone I knew raved about it, and though I wasn’t exactly suspicious, I had only a very distant memory of Ms. Mehta’s Fire (1996) and Earth (1998), the first two parts of her trilogy on India, so I approached the film with the skeptical attitude of one who has been burned too many times by films with their hearts in the right place. I know that India in general, and Indian women in particular, have suffered many injustices in the country’s long colonial (and at times religiously intolerant) past. As the late Leo Durocher once remarked, when asked about his trading policy with the moribund New York Giants baseball team he had inherited: “Back up the truck!”
Much to my surprise, Water turned out to be not an addled piece of agitprop, as I had feared, but quite possibly the best picture of the year thus far, with no fewer than three of the most luminous female performances I have ever seen onscreen. The institutional horror and spiritual grandeur of the film creep up on you slowly, like the inexorable currents of the Ganges.
Before we know the names of any of the characters, we are being conducted on a mysterious river-borne funeral procession with a dead man prominently displayed on one of the boats. A father asks his 8-year-old daughter if she remembers getting married. With a smile of incomprehension, she shakes her head. The father tells her that her husband has died and that she is now a widow. She still has no idea what this means. By traditional Hindu law, she will be a widow for the rest of her life—unless she chooses to die instead by being immolated with her deceased husband on the funeral pyre. There is no third way. When her boat reaches the shore, the little girl, named Chuyia (Sarala), is deposited by her mother in a widows’ ashram presided over by Madhumati (Manorama), a repulsive old crone. Despite Chuyia’s screams, the mother ignobly flees the premises to join Chuyia’s father on the boat trip back across the Ganges.
The next morning, Chuyia’s head is shaved in conformity with all the other widows in the ashram—except for the beautiful Kalyani (Lisa Ray), who immediately befriends Chuyia. The reason Kalyani is allowed to keep her hair unshaved is that she earns precious income for the ashram as a prostitute. Almost every evening, she is placed by Madhumati in the custody of the eunuch procurer Gulabi (Raghuvir Yadav) and taken in a small boat to a wealthy Brahmin on the other side of the Ganges.
Though the impish Chuyia serves as a younger sister to the lonely Kalyani, Chuyia receives most of her maternal care from the warm-hearted, middle-aged Shakuntala (Seema Biswas). By using the wide-eyed newcomer Chuyia as her point-of-view character, Ms. Mehta is able to control the pace of her narrative and demonstrate how much of the barbarous imprisonment of the widows until a sterile old age is self-imposed.
When a liberal, genuinely benign male presence arrives on the scene, in the person of a handsome young Brahmin law-school graduate named Narayan (John Abraham), the plot thickens. Narayan is led by the freely wandering Chuyia to Kalyani, with whom he falls in love, only to discover that his own father is one of Kalyani’s clients.
The story takes place in the India of 1938, at a time when Mohandas K. Gandhi has just been released from a British prison and is seen touring the country by train to lead the movement for independence from colonial rule. Narayan is one of Gandhi’s most devoted followers, and he wishes to take Kalyani with him despite her prior relationship with his father. But her feeling of shame drives her to drown herself in the Ganges, after which the film races to a wildly melodramatic climax that manages to be both horrifying and heartwarming at the same time. But just when the viewer has settled into a warm inner glow over the passion and artistry displayed by Ms. Mehta, her cast and her collaborators, the film’s afterword informs us that millions of Indian women still suffer the same kind of barbarity endured by Chuyia, Kalyani and Shakuntala—nearly 70 years after the time of Ms. Mehta’s story.
Ms. Mehta has become such a controversial figure in Indian society that Water had to be shot in Sri Lanka after the Indian sets for Water were destroyed by religious fanatics. Her courage is our blessing.
Borzage Goes On!
The Museum of the Moving Image (35th Avenue at 36th Street in Astoria, Queens), continues its rousingly romantic retrospective of the works of Frank Borzage (1893-1962) with seven must-see attractions.
Lazybones (1925): A silent heartbreaker with live music by Donald Sosin and a cast led by Buck Jones and Madge Bellamy. (Sunday, July 23, 4:30 p.m.)
7th Heaven (1927): Another silent film, which won Borzage the first-ever Best Director Oscar and made instant stars of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. (Saturday, July 29, 2 p.m.)
Street Angel (1928): Gaynor and Farrell star again in an even steamier love vehicle than 7th Heaven. Gaynor won the first Best Actress Oscar for a trio of performances, in F.W. Murnau’s sublime Sunrise (1927), 7th Heaven and Street Angel. (Saturday, July 29, 4:30 p.m.)
Little Man, What Now? (1934): Margaret Sullavan and Douglass Montgomery play a struggling couple in the economic and political chaos of Weimar Germany on the verge of the Nazi takeover. (Saturday, Aug. 5, 2 p.m.)
A Farewell to Arms (1932): Less laconic and stoical than the Hemingway novel, with Helen Hayes in her most emotional performance ever and Gary Cooper less repressed than usual. (Saturday, Aug. 5, 4:30 p.m.)
Desire (1936): Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper star. The film was produced by Ernst Lubitsch and directed by Borzage with something less than the famed Lubitsch sparkle—though the beefed-up Production Code may have been to blame. (Sunday, Aug. 6, 2 p.m.)
Three Comrades (1938): One of Margaret Sullavan’s most dynamic death scenes, with Robert Taylor, Franchot Tone and Robert Young as the three comrades. (Sunday, Aug. 6, 4:30 p.m.)