Sunday, February 3, 2008

As She Likes It

A pair of young lovers. The young man departs for war, leaving the young woman alone and afraid and free to wander. Another character, an older gentleman, is left by his wife for his brother, and is reluctant to enter a courtship with another woman close to his age. The younger woman washes ashore on the old man's homestead, where they battle and finally establish a father-daughter bond. The older woman discovers and gets the wrong idea about their relationship, as does the soldier boy when he unexpectedly returns. Misunderstandings and many hijinks ensue, followed by a coupling between one pair, a marriage between the other, and a happy (if hard-earned) ending.

If I have neglected to mention a few other pertinent elements of Black Snake Moan -- for starters: the young woman, Rae (Christina Ricci), is a sexual compulsive who is beaten by a would-be suitor and left for dead on the farm of the older man Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson); and Laz, incidentally an embittered alcoholic and failed musician, deals with the situation by chaining Rae to a radiator -- that is because these have been already analyzed to death. And Black Snake Moan is a film that throbs with life. Writer-director Craig Brewer captures the shadings of the Deep South, the conflicts and kinships that blur across racial, gender and age boundaries. Ricci is good at showing how Rae's acting out is like a demonic possession, a seed planted through childhood abuse. At first, Jackson appears obligated to fulfill his usual contractual stipulation to overuse the word "motherfucker," but he comes to fully embody Laz's hard-edged decency and delivers his best work in years.

I don't want to make too big a deal of Black Snake Moan, which is a likable if uneven affair at best; but it's worth pointing out that beneath its kinky, pulpy surface and self-aware absurdity lies the structure of a Shakespearean comedy -- merging the couples who belong together (as Rae and Laz's respective romantic interests, Justin Timberlake and S. Epatha Merkerson come through with empathic performances) and touching on the transformative power of art. In the movie's best scene, Laz picks up his guitar again and plays an R&B show at a local bar. As he sings, Rae dances with the integrated crowd, and Brewer's camera plunges into the thick of it, unleashing an erotic current through a sea of black and white.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia is also a comedy, albeit the unintentional kind. Based on the novel by James Ellroy, the film means to chronicle the tragic true-life story of Elizabeth Short, an aspiring Hollywood actress who was found brutally murdered in post-World War II Los Angeles. But as usual De Palma gets easily distracted, turning the entire opening act into a boxing movie between a pair of young cops, the confusingly named Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) -- who also go by the more elemental nicknames "Mr. Ice" and "Mr. Fire" -- and then dithers into lame screwball comedy and romantic tension as Bleichert is brought into a triangle with Blanchard and the latter's squeeze, Kay (Scarlett Johansson). When DePalma finally gets to dealing with Short's death, the scene is one of the few that is well-staged: a long-distance shot of a woman pushing a baby carriage who stumbles on the body and runs screaming down a street corner, while Bleichert and Blanchard are on a stakeout for another crime. As a shoot-out transpires, we're still left thinking about that woman's disturbing screams -- as yet unexplained -- emanating from the corner of the frame.

For a little while longer, The Black Dahlia gets by on recapturing (however palely) the atmosphere and themes of Curtis Hanson's magnificent adaptation of that other Ellroy novel, L.A. Confidential. Hanson -- whom I will dub "Mr. Fire" -- kept his story stoked all the way to its climactic inferno of violence. But De Palma, at once lurid yet chilly, pumps up the sordid elements of The Black Dahlia, falls back on his old-hat Hitchcock/Vertigo visual motifs, and is so tone-deaf to the nature of key scenes that he renders them laughable. The performances by Hartnett and Johansson are also a joke, especially when asked to deal with another character's demise by shagging on a table (another classic scene for a potential documentary about Hollywood's ideas of eroticism: Sex in Uncomfortable Places). Hilary Swank has also been the target of brickbats for her turn as Madeleine Linscott, a high-society femme fatale, but I actually thought she had good game. But the only actor who appears to truly sense the awfulness of the whole endeavor is Fiona Shaw (Aunt Petunia from the Harry Potter oeuvre), who plays Linscott's deranged mother and camps it up mightily.

As The Black Dahlia came out over a year ago, I realize I'm late to the pile-on party; it's also likely unfair of me to put all the blame for this mess at De Palma's feet. (The incoherent screenplay by Josh Friedman does him no favors; and one wag at the movie's IMDb message board suggested that the editor had cut every third scene as a sick joke.) Still, after Mission to Mars and now this, I have to wonder how much further De Palma's current run of work has to bottom out before even his most ardent apologists face up to the stench. (The few raves for The Black Dahlia remind me of the desperate line of argument trotted out by defenders of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's wretched sixth season: "At first I didn't think it was brilliant, but then I realized it's so brilliant that I didn't initially realize it is.") The scene where Bleichert claims to Kay that he couldn't stop a murder because he froze, when in fact we had just seen him running up a flight of stairs and waving his arms like a maniac, isn't the case of a cunning director playing with notions of memory -- it's just sloppy filmmaking. The Black Dahlia -- Ellroy's most personal work -- and Elizabeth Short deserve better than sloppiness. They deserve better than cold technique. Yet even when De Palma's fans tacitly acknowledge this, they still take pains to let him off the hook. They're like the movie's police captain, in another howler of a scene, when he points an admonishing finger at Bleichert and growls, "Boy, if you weren't Mr. Ice...."

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