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The Good, the Bad, and the God-awful 

Thoughts on Gigli and late-summer truffle hunting

Thursday, Aug 21 2003
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What precedent, if any, exists for movie directors making public apologies for their work? Vincent Gallo was rumored to have done just that at Cannes this year, in the wake of his contentious The Brown Bunny, before a precise transcript of the interview in question proved otherwise. And long before Gallo, there was D.W. Griffith, who fashioned Intolerance as a kind of amends for the racist attitudes in Birth of a Nation. But has any director come right out — held a news conference, for example — to plead for public forgiveness, to seek absolution from those moviegoers unlucky enough to have surrendered two hours of their lives to his or her unfortunate opus? If not, is there any reason why Martin Brest, in light of his abominable Gigli, shouldn’t start such a trend?

By the time I got around to Gigli, in the second weekend of its release, the cinemas showing the film had already turned into cold, forbidding, empty places. Not that they had been significantly cheerier locales the weekend before, when Gigli had eked out a mere $3.8 million gross from some 2,000 nationwide engagements. Long before this pairing of the pop-culture icons known as Ben and Jen finally appeared, the word was on the street: Gigli was DOA. Yet, despite the usher’s insistence that many Gigli showings had played to completely empty auditoriums all week, there was a scattering of curiosity seekers at this particular Sunday-afternoon show — connoisseurs of displeasure, clearly come to examine the smoldering wreckage, to see for themselves if Gigli really was, in the words of The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern, “the worst movie of our admittedly young century.”

Much as I’d like to report otherwise — to proclaim that Gigli’s vitriolic dismissal was a case of mass critical delusion on the order of Heaven’s Gate — I’m afraid that, at least this once, everything you’ve heard isn’t just true, it’s too kind. Gigli isn’t merely bad or terrible; it’s horrifying. What makes the movie a special case (and worth discussing, even now) is that it’s the kind of gigantic, tremulous failure — like Barry Levinson’s Toys or Lawrence Kasdan’s Dreamcatcher, only much worse — that only very talented people with lots of unchecked creative freedom can end up being responsible for. It’s not stultifying in the way of, say, last summer’s debacle, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, or unintentionally self-parodic like Battlefield Earth. No, Gigli’s cataclysmic badness — the screechingly overwritten dialogue; the use of lesbianism and mental retardation as metaphors for free-spiritedness; the lunatic scene where J. Lo’s ex-girlfriend bursts in out of the blue and promptly slits open both her wrists — stems from the movie’s labored desire to be quirky and unexpected at every turn, to dazzle us with its originality. And by the time a frazzled Al Pacino shows up, delivering an indecipherable, seemingly improvised monologue before splattering one character’s brains all across a giant fish tank, you’ve traded wondering “What were they thinking?” for “What am I thinking?” as the movie before you begins to resemble nothing so much as an unsubtitled foreign-language film. Gigli may be the best record we have of a filmmaker experiencing a full creative breakdown in the course of shooting a movie.

Of course, once movies get under way there’s rarely any stopping them; they can’t be tucked away in drawers like unfinished novels or thrown out and begun anew like unwanted canvases. And even when they nose-dive as spectacularly as Gigli, they no longer disappear quietly into the night, for there are video and cable and DVD to keep them coming back, to gift even the worst of films with immortality. (Which means that while Gigli may be, at present, something more rumored than known, it will not remain so for long.) And we must also consider the possibility that Gigli is, in fact, the movie Brest wanted to make, given that he is the sole credited writer on the project, is one of only two credited producers and had final cut over its assembly.

Which brings us back to the question of an apology. Twice before, Brest has removed his name from his own movies — from the heavily recut (mostly for length) television versions of Scent of a Woman and Meet Joe Black — in favor of the pseudonym Alan Smithee (since retired by the DGA). Will the same hold true for Gigli? Will the inevitable DVD, with the inevitable director’s audio commentary, serve as Brest’s mea culpa or merely his self-defense? Or will he snap to his senses before then and have the movie permanently withdrawn from circulation?

 

Truffles, Peter Mayle tells us in his wonderful memoir A Year in Provence, grow a few centimeters beneath the ground, on the roots of certain oak trees, and are best obtained between the months of November and March, using a scent-trained animal (dogs are preferred to pigs) as your guide. No finer analogy to the practice of film criticism do I know, particularly in that off-season of summer, when truffles are so much less plentiful than the manure one must plow one’s nose through in order to find them. (Can it be mere coincidence that perhaps the funniest scene in perhaps the summer’s funniest film, American Wedding, brings together these two worlds: truffle and shit?)

Upon reflection, Gigli seems one of the few honestly received ventures in a summer where many movies got less than they deserved — in terms of either money (Terminator 3) or acclaim (American Wedding, The Matrix Reloaded), or both (Hollywood Homicide) — and a few (X2, Bruce Almighty, Pirates of the Caribbean) got inappropriately generous helpings of just about everything. As usual, the season’s better offerings — 28 Days Later, Man on the Train, Capturing the Friedmans et al. — were indies and imports that flew well below the media radar, “counterprogramming” pitched at viewers fatigued by the studios’ bloated-budget fare. Similarly, the best of the blockbusters weren’t so much genuine delicacies as shake-and-bake ventures keen on satisfying their core fan bases and few others. They were, in short, movies with precious few aspirations to art and, least of all, respectability — whereas respectability and artistic pretension, at the expense of anything resembling wit, energy or imagination, were part and parcel of X2 and Pirates.

How fortunate, though, that we now have the August 16 issue of Entertainment Weekly — the common man’s Variety — to set the record straight, to inform us, in a cover story written by hands other than those of the magazine’s regular critics, that not only was Pirates of the Caribbean (a sure-fire hit that even a 3-year-old could have spotted from miles away) the summer’s “surprise smash,” but that X2 is “arguably the greatest superhero movie ever.” (And perhaps it is, if the only other superhero movie you’ve seen is Ang Lee’s Hulk.) Even more noteworthy, that same issue of EW contains not one but two reader letters (imagine how many were actually received!) chastising one of the magazine’s real critics, Lisa Schwarzbaum, for her mixed review of Pirates, which she awarded a grade of C. “What in the heck is going on with your movie reviews?” queries Lyn Jameyson of Grand Rapids, Michigan, before going on to explain that he/she fully expected the film to receive “a well-deserved A- or B+.” Well, I’d like to take this moment to respond to Mr./Ms. Jameyson on Ms. Schwarzbaum’s behalf, by saying simply this: When such praise is not only expected but given to such movies — and indeed, both Pirates and X2 received their share of raves — that may be the moment when critics and moviegoers have begun to collectively engineer the downfall of cinema, like the humans who inadvertently give rise to the deadly machines of the Terminator films. Or it may just be an indication that Martin Brest needn’t worry about where his next meal is coming from after all.

Reach the writer at sfoundas@villagevoice.com

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