Rappers With Dirty Faces, plus a Cosmic Hourglass
By Fernando F. Croce

A persistent fallacy is that there is some kind of unruly cinematic brilliance to be extracted from music-video directing, so fidgety slicknicks such as Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry get exalted as visionaries storming the big screen. Lies, lies, lies. Fulsomely praised, Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind show them as the faddish frauds they are, their technique flashy and their cleverness deadening. New to this club is Bryan Barber, who designed the splashy OutKast bonanzas ("Hey Ya!," "The Whole World," "The Way You Move") and now serves the degraded energies of what hip-hop has become with Idlewild. A musical, which in this postmodern age means that modern and archaic genre tropes will be mindlessly vacuumed and hurled onto the lenses, edited with a sledgehammer and sold to viewers as a hip curio. It reaped Oscars for Chicago, but the jig may finally be up: the movie, created as a showcase for OutKast duo André "André 3000" Benjamin and Antwan "Big Boi" Patton, has been stashed away by the studio for nearly two years, and its hodgepodge plot only heightens its stale smell. It's set in 1935 in the Georgia town of the title, where Benjamin (a mortician's introverted son) and Patton (a sly singer with bootlegging experience) mingle Depression atmosphere with hip-hop attitude, the rhythms of jazz with the patter of rap. "The Church," a rowdy nightclub with fire-breathing chorines, is where most of the drama unfolds; a gangster (Terrence Howard) muscles in on the place, while a princessy chanteuse (Paula Patton) out of St. Louis blooms into a star and encourages Benjamin to follow his dreams.

Before getting blasted out of the film, buoyant Faizon Love extols the divine beauties of "pussy and money" -- wasn't that Robert Evans' pitch for The Cotton Club? Coppola analyzed the rebellious, self-valorizing side of black entertainment during the 1930s, but Barber keeps all these tommy-gun 'n' moonshine shenanigans secluded from the rest of the cultural cyclone taking place throughout the culture, the better to focus on clunky showstoppers and the stars' self-fondling personas. The past in Idlewild is evoked only to be raided for vintage clichés and pumped full of gas: when Cicely Tyson shows up to give Patton a Bible, it's clear a mile away that not only will the book halt a bullet aimed at his ticker, but also that the whole sequence will sport the fatuous technical oh-wow of a Matrix installment. Like so many directors shooting for "edginess," Barber lacks the basic confidence to simply let the image be, so that nothing stands still when it can be sliced and scrambled and animated and sped-up and slowed-down into oblivion -- in addition to their tepid mediocrity, the numbers suffer the indignity of fragmentation, so that even the performers' voices turn into vaporous presences. Casting Ben Vereen as Benjamin's dour undertaker father casts an egotistically facile shadow, of a new generation's showmen emerging from another's to revitalize the moribund genre; given the current state of the musical, the mortician aspect is significant, though OutKast can only apply synthetic cosmetics to the corpse (it's no coincidence that Benjamin's most heartfelt ballad is sung to a lifeless body). At least Idlewild is a bit better than Chicago, which itself was a bit better than Moulin Rouge! At this rate, just a couple more years and we can regain the supreme heights of... Hello, Dolly!

*

Idlewild offers constant noise; the soundtrack of House of Sand is no less insistent, though here it's the shifting dunes of Brazil's harsh Maranhão desert providing the score (a shame, I was looking forward to hearing a bit of my native Portuguese). In any case, Andrucha Waddington's movie is intended to be a "purely visual experience," or so maintain critics who in all likelihood complained about The New World not having a plot; Waddington couldn't hold Malick's coat, yet nevertheless sets himself a challenge by limiting the palette and attempting to ring multiple variations out of it. Sand, the sky and the sea are what the director has, enough for a thousand hollow shots and two or three interesting ones, kept wide apart from each other: the opening image introduces the landscape as the main star, a sand crater filling the screen horizontally in long-shot as a caravan slowly -- slooowly -- makes its way around it. Cut to a close-up profile of Fernanda Montenegro and Fernanda Torres side by side in dark shawls, sort of a leftover from Van Sant's Gerry. The year's 1910: Torres is pregnant, her husband (Ruy Guerra, the Cinema Novo filmmaker) insists there will be water in the desert, and sets up camp. Fugitive slaves appear toting machetes, the caravan is dispersed; Guerra stays behind with the distraught women. Blessedly widowed, Torres seeks help from the local fisherman (Seu Jorge) while Waddington futzes around with ellipsis -- soon ten years have passed by, a girl has been born, and their house keeps sinking into the sand.

Torres becomes determined to find a way out while Montenegro comes to accept this arid endlessness as a new home, seeing its bright side, even ("No man tells me what to do here"). The pace remains stately, like sand cascading through the hourglass; an eclipse obscures the area, and the heroine bumps into a group of scientists there to record it. A soldier (Enrique Díaz) gives her a roll in the sand, though not before spelling out the cosmic dimension of Waddington's pretension -- still, the episode offers a glimpse of Torres seeming to age before our very eyes into Montenegro, her real-life mom, as she cries upon hearing her first snippet of music in a decade. Unfortunately, the director notices it, too, and decides henceforth to have the actresses lap roles as time passes, with Montenegro eventually portraying all three generations in old age (including, inevitably, acting opposite herself for the climatic punchline). Woman in the Dunes may have been the model, but the elemental aspect of the film is strictly decorative, waving monotonously from pretty to petrified -- when planes fly over the sand and mark the pale backlands with shadows, it's not a moment of fleeting unity between the modern and the primitive, but a bit of visual fraudulence out of The English Patient. Like City of God, House of Sand deliberately disregards the political shifts of Brazil's history by isolating the sprawling narrative from the rest of the nation, so that nothing can distract the director from his finicky composing. Torres' hungry tryst with Seu Jorge provides momentary heat (as well as a single provocative use of color), but by then Waddington's work has long eroded in the wind.

*

Anything could be fun after Waddington's muffled severity, so why not Charles Bukowski's boozing, whoring prose? Nope, Factotum is another fucking minimalism-a-thon, numb from the very start -- the camera is nailed to a hotel room floor to record Matt Dillon rolling out of bed and throwing up into the toilet only to reach for the bottle a moment later, the scene seeming to play backwards in slow motion. Women, brawls, and barstool philosophizing follow, yet, despite Dillon's verve, the handling is listless, Bukowski's pungent juice is missing; maybe director Bent Hamer thought that, since he's Norwegian, he had to made it into Hamsun's Hunger. Go watch Beerfest instead: Broken Lizard's new keg party is a much livelier view of the absurdism of serial drinking, featuring, strangely enough, a much more Bukowskian feeling. When gamy Cloris Leachman declares "I've had all kinds of things shoved up my ass" to tinkly poignant music, it's a sweet reminder of Gloria LeRoy's Grandma Moses in Barfly reminiscing about "swallowing paste." A toast to that.


Reviewed August 31, 2006.

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