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The Director's the Thing

Photo by Eric Liebowitz
THE SCARIEST SEVEN WORDS IN THE English language are these: "What I really wanna do is direct." When you hear them, start running and never stop. Decoded, they mean: "What I really wanna do is dreck." The phrase is redolent of counter-jumping thespians not fit to be left in charge of the store. Kevin Costner. Richard Attenborough. Gary Oldman. Their combined directorial output sums up the evidence pretty succinctly: the Himalayan ego unleashed, the grossest indulgence afforded one's vainest acting colleagues, and the overextension of underfed improv sequences. As Ben Gazzara groans in John Turturro's Illuminata, "This is no profession for an adult!"

But lately the adults seem to have taken over the sandbox. Actors have been knocking out some quite nifty movies as directors. Usually it's on a small, independently financed basis, or with their own pocket money, so perhaps this lends their films the self-discipline so often lacking when actors start hefting bullhorns and bossing sound stages. Steve Buscemi's Trees Lounge was like a manifesto against actorly vanity. Tim Robbins absented himself altogether from Dead Man Walking. Stanley Tucci gave his actors more than enough rope in The Imposters, but none of it turned into nooses or tripwires. And Turturro's own debut, Mac, was enviably steady on its feet, despite inhabiting a well-trodden milieu already littered with the corpses of Scorsese's imitators.

Turturro has always been a serious actor, choosing wisely and ranging widely. He's created a great gallery of portraits: Herbie Stempel in Quiz Show, Barton Fink and his Coen cameos, his Spike Lee outings, that psycho in Five Corners who bludgeons a penguin to death. As an actor he knows his place and knows that the film, as embodied by the director's organizing intelligence, is the sun around which the planets must revolve. But he can reframe the situation from a director's perspective too, which may be why Illuminata, although it's nominally all about acting and theater, is very much a fully realized cinematic experience and not merely an actor's revenge.

Dramatist Tuccio watches the audience assemble in the little Italian theater for which he knocks out plays. Backstage, the actors (Rufus Sewell, Ben Gazzara, Georgina Cates among them) rehearse, fight and fornicate. When one actor falls ill midshow, Tuccio refuses to put on Ibsen's A Doll's House as replacement and says he'll have a new play, Illuminata, the very next night. More or less everything that's happened so far, and everything that will elapse before curtain-up, somehow wends its way, in an accidental act of communal creativity, into the play that results. This should make for an abominable movie, but doesn't, mainly because Turturro and regular co-writer Brandon Cole (on whose play the movie is based) run so many variations on the shopworn themes of life-vs.-art and all-the-world's-a-stage that they manage entirely to transcend and transform our expectations. One by one, the fourth, third and second walls, then, exhilaratingly, the first, come tumbling down. Reality intrudes upon the play, and the fiction spills over into life. Illuminata sees life and art not as two sides of a fence or coin, but as elements separated by a porous membrane that allows the two to intermingle. Illuminata is both, and neither, hanging in suspension between the two.

So many styles of acting are included that one fears the film may bloat or burst. Miraculously, it doesn't. Somehow the thespian idioms evoked by casting Gazzara (Cassavetes), Sewell (West End Alan Bates), Donal McCann (Dublin's Abbey Theatre, Wilde to Beckett) and Susan Sarandon (superstar) are integrated into an organic, functioning whole. The cast even spontaneously, magnificently bursts into Brechtian operetta at one point, then returns just as abruptly to naturalism. And when an actor dies, the whole cast freezes for 20 seconds, none of their gazes interlocking. It's quite out of context, and quite perfectly appropriate. It's a million miles from, say, Bullets Over Broadway, and closer to the moment at the end of Theodoros Angelopoulos' The Traveling Players, when an actor's funeral ends with sustained applause from his troupe for his greatest endeavor, the performance of his own life. Illuminata sees acting redeemed and reinvigorated by its own practitioners. John Turturro, even if you have to act less, be sure to direct more, and often.

ILLUMINATA | Directed by JOHN TURTURRO | Written by TURTURRO and BRANDON COLE | Produced by TURTURRO, RANDEL COLE, GIOVANNI Di CLEMENTE and JOHN PENOTTI | Released by ARTISAN ENTERTAINMENT | At Landmark's Westside Pavilion Cinemas, Laemmle's Colorado