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Brief Encounters 

Wan winners and beautiful losers

Wednesday, Sep 27 2000
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As if to persuade us that the recently fizzled summer wasn’t the dreariest in years, or further evidence of an industry in permanent crisis, moviemakers are launching the new season with three features about that most American of subjects: winning. Which, perhaps now more than ever before, is everything in our native cinema -- as well as an anxious affirmation: We‘re number one. At first blush, Remember the Titans, Girlfight and Best in Show couldn’t be more dissimilar. Remember the Titans is the third film this year from producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who previously voided Gone in 60 Seconds and Coyote Ugly, two puffs of cinematic gas that in an earlier age would have wafted into local grindhouses alongside gleefully irredeemable gutter classics such as She-Devils on Wheels. Bruckheimer‘s latest is in some crucial respects worse than those earlier blockbuster bids (or She-Devils) -- certainly it’s more fraudulent -- because unlike those films, which don‘t claim to be about anything other than thrills and tits, Remember the Titans means to be about race.

While the thrills are dinky in Remember the Titans, the breasts are impressive -- even under football jerseys. Denzel Washington stars as a coach brought in to lead a hitherto white high school team, circa 1971, to both victory and racial accord. Well practiced at spinning dross into gold, the actor has enough authority to make you briefly forget the corruption of Gregory Allen Howard’s script -- he can clear a frequency for himself amid even the worst static. As one of those black characters who‘s never wrong, essentially because being wrong would make him human, Washington eases past the thicket of platitudes, slipping by child actors whose scene-stealing tactics would shame Walter Brennan and playing off the rest of the otherwise likable young cast like a seasoned session man tapped to mellow the upstarts. Bruckheimer has an eye for casting, or at least casting directors, and as with most of his movies, this one comes with plenty of grist for the celebrity mill, in particular Kip Pardue as a California dream and Wood Harris as a brother from a nobler planet. Since directors are inconsequential for Bruckheimer, directing duties here belong to Boaz Yakin, doubtless because of his similarly fraudulent race farrago, Fresh.

Girlfight is more of a real movie than Remember the Titans, but I wish this bantamweight inspirational about a girl boxer didn’t take itself so seriously. The film made a big noise at Sundance, and while some of the attention was deserved -- first-time writer-director Karyn Kusama has an instinct for the iconic image -- the storytelling depends on a feint not much different from that found in the average Bruckheimer spectacle: Kusama leads with feminist empowerment, but her sucker punch is a sappy romance. Given this, it should come as no great surprise that the 32-year-old got her start working with John Sayles, and that his longtime producer, Maggie Renzi, also co-produced this one. The star is another newcomer, a tough babe named Michelle Rodriguez, whose surly self-regard and animal heat bring to mind the young Brando; even when she burrows inside the character, Rodriguez makes certain all eyes are on her. The story is about identity, musculature and just how deeply satisfying it is to watch a woman punch the sneer off a man, and while it deserves to find an audience, Kusama would do better to take her next cues not from Sayles, but from the likes of Anthony Mann and his (unrelated) brother in hard-knock passion, Michael Mann.

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Girlfight is worthy, all right, but it‘s also carved from the same slab of soap as Remember the Titans -- both films are about ”the triumph of the human spirit,“ as they say in Hollywood. That cliche wouldn’t be so skin-crawling if winners in American films triumphed because they were actually better at, say, boxing or football, or better at boxing while also being unreconstructed assholes. But arrogant winners are as intolerable to us as losers, and while Girlfight may be righteous, Best in Show is more honest. This satire about show dogs and their handlers was co-written and directed by Chrisopher Guest and reprises the mock-documentary format of his Waiting for Guffman, which means that it‘s also about skewering stereotypes. Many of Guffman’s ensemble are back in terrific form, including co-writer Eugene Levy as a terrier lover with literal left feet, Catherine O‘Hara as his wife, Parker Posey as a Weimaraner wrangler and Fred Willard as one of the dog-show hosts, who matches half-wits with Don Lake’s slow-burning foil. Unlike most comic directors, Guest begins -- but doesn‘t end -- with caricatures, then peels away at our preconceptions until we see the heart and soul beneath the buckteeth and Siegfried & Roy posturing. The result is at once savage and tender, if slight.

There hasn’t been an American director as wildly out of control as French director Leos Carax, or as passionately in love with film as with his own gifts, since Francis Ford Coppola was working at the height of his violent inspiration. Now 40, Carax has the same talent for jumping off cliffs -- he makes art, not necessarily sense. In some measure that‘s because his work creates as much meaning through images as words; his films don’t just shuttle forward on the good graces of well-placed verbs and nouns, they soar on images whose mysteries he refuses to fully divulge. The filmmaker has a thrilling visual style, and an infectious optimism about the possibilities of the medium that works a baroque counterpoint to his romantic pessimism -- his mad-hatter mistakes are as joyous and swooningly pleasurable as his triumphs. In keeping with his m.o. -- first as an enfant terrible, now as an aging, often raging enfant terrible -- the artist also has a peculiarly French taste for beautiful losers.

Carax‘s first feature, Boy Meets Girl (1984), is a heart-stopping fever dream in black and white inspired by Godard and Vigo, in which a melancholic longing for cinematic things past rustles even the film’s quieter delights -- lonely tap dancing, an astronaut sighing at the moon -- like the gentlest mistral. Carax was 24 when he made the film, and after it premiered to great success at Cannes he found himself anointed a Next Wave hero, an honor that seemed as much curse as benediction. Three years later, he directed Mauvais Sang (Bad Blood), a lovely romantic ramble with Juliette Binoche, Michel Piccoli, a very young Julie Delpy and Carax‘s thugish alter ego, Denis Lavant, that is compromised only, and only slightly, by its unwieldy AIDS metaphor. Since then he’s made two features: Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991) and Pola X (1999).

A mad, gorgeous epic about a homeless fire-breather (Lavant) and the near-blind artist (Binoche) with whom he falls in love, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf comes as close to representing the feeling of falling in love, the sheer recklessness, even desperation, of passion, as I‘ve ever seen on screen. Given that the love story is finally as much about cinema as two stubbornly imperfect human beings (Carax delights in every scrape and smear of mud defacing his stars), it’s no great surprise that the film was alternately hailed and damned by critics, and took nearly a decade to find an American release. The shabby disregard for the film in this country -- where many critics seemed too busy lamenting the death of cinema to notice how furiously Carax was pumping life into it -- was complemented by Miramax‘s clunky, vengefully un-poetic title, Lovers on the Bridge, a translation as pedestrian as the film is not. Due to open theatrically in several weeks, Pola X will be shown with the rest of the director’s features in a brief retrospective at the American Cinematheque, where the screen is just big enough to hold Carax‘s exuberance. The director, who puts on almost as good a show in person, is promised to be in attendance.

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