Reading film reviews by American critics, it becomes apparent that – with a few notable exceptions – the majority are unbelievably blinkered and downright xenophobic in an unthinking, casual way. It's that classic American trait: being only aware of what's going on inside their own country, and, on the basis of that very limited purview, being completely willing to make universal pronouncements about the state of the entire planet. This is sadly very true when Americans talk about cinema. Often given to sweeping statements about the state of the art, the death or the re-birth of the movies, American film critics are usually only ever talking about American movies.
I will outline two instances of this. In the mid ‘90s, Rolling Stone magazine ran a section devoted to the strange new genre of 'rebel movies'. I find it difficult to grasp exactly what a 'rebel movie' is but I assume the label refers to both movies that are about rebels and that are somehow rebellious, anarchistic and groundbreaking in their style or voice. In his article, Peter Travers offers a list of the great rebel movies that have appeared throughout Rolling Stone’s existence. Every film on the list was in the English language, and all bar three out of twenty, from Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) to Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994), were American. So much for all the Polish, French, Russian and Iranian rebels, and their cinematic cries of rage.
Another example is the special movie edition of the popular magazine Vanity Fair. James Wolcott offers an intriguing piece in this issue criticising film critics. His main point is one that I enthusiastically agree with – that a lot of prominent critics pontificate far too much, in melancholic tones, about the decline or death of cinema since the glory days of the 1960s. But there comes the awful moment when Wolcott walks the plank to list, in his opinion, just what are the great movies of the 1990s that critics like me should be more thankful for. This list includes about twenty films and every one of them is in the English language. There are a few British titles and even two Australian movies but essentially it's a roll call of brave new American films: Pulp Fiction, Crumb (Terry Zwigoff, 1995), Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995), Fargo (Joel Coen, 1995) and Seven (David Fincher, 1995). I happen to like all these movies, to varying degrees. But where are the films on this list by Abbas Kiarsotami, Nanni Moretti, Hou Hsaio-hsien, Leos Carax, or any other exceptional non-American you'd care to name?
The subject of America, and American movies on the international stage, brings out some very mixed and ambivalent feelings in me. I have been called, on various occasions, an apologist for American pop culture. Apology is rarely my preferred mode of discourse, but it is true that I have cultivated an intense love for certain things American, particularly certain strains of classic Hollywood cinema. But should anyone who is non-American feel ashamed of their personal love for American movies, music, art or poetry? This seems to me an unreasonable demand, made usually by the hoary public-intellectual dinosaurs left over from another, pre-pop era. There's a lot in American pop culture that deserves to be loved, respected and paid attention to. All the same, however, even a filthy apologist like myself is open to a certain ambivalence about some things American. When the German director Wim Wenders wrote a long and rather purple poem called "The American Dream", he expressed just this kind of mixed feeling. He wrote:
How else but with ambivalence
should one look at this country with its dream of itself?
What other stance is imaginable
apart from ‘being of two minds’?" (1)
For Wenders, as for many pining non-Americans, the
popular culture of the world's most powerful nation can offer a sort of
personal liberation. When Wenders reflects on his primal, youthful encounter
with American culture – specifically,
Paul Schrader's Touch (1996) is a film that chimes in well with my ambivalence about things American. It's a 'minor' film in the sense that it's a quietly different American movie; one that was released with little hype and that travels along strange and unfamiliar tracks. At the same time, there's something quite familiar about it: it’s based on a novel by Elmore Leonard, and so it's in a living and active pop-culture dialogue with films like Get Shorty (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1995) and, even more, Tarantino's hit movie Pulp Fiction, which is deeply influenced by the whole world and sensibility that Leonard has created. Tarantino is of course completely up-front about this and has publicly declared something to the effect of "I'm trying to do in movies what Elmore Leonard is doing in his novels". In addition, his next film Jackie Brown (1998) was an adaptation of one of the master's books, Rum Punch.
Schrader's Touch is also expressly about ambivalence: specifically, the problem and question of belief in the ineffable, the spiritual, and the divine. Belief, or faith, is to me one of the great subjects of the cinema. Both the specific belief in something like the divine and the more general, aesthetic belief such as the "willed suspension of disbelief" that we experience before screen stories and their fictional worlds. For many reasons, artistic and social, the cinema has always been torn in two broad directions. On the one hand, it’s drawn towards a willed belief in miracles, magic and illusion – because of course it has the power to create such convincing and captivating illusions. On the other hand, cinema has proved itself time and again a very suspicious, cynical and agnostic medium – one that unmasks all illusions, including its own, that casts doubt on all trickery, hokum and make-believe.
The privileged form for this drama of belief versus doubt in film is the classic story of a faith-healer or miracle worker. Often these characters are complete shysters but in the course of their grand deceit they stumble inadvertently upon something that seems to indicate the presence of real, divine magic. Usually, this divinity is embodied in a person or stranger – an innocent, a child for instance. But even these figures come to generate an intense ambivalence in the people around them and in the viewers: are they pretending, fooling? Is there an even bigger scam around the corner? Is there some operator behind the scenes pulling all the strings? For me, the very greatest film in this tradition is a wild Spanish movie starring Dennis Hopper from the mid 80s called Reborn, directed by Bigas Luna. Another more recent film that in a very different, more elevated way, plays on this tension between belief and doubt, is Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, 1996).
Touch opens with a fantastic scene that plunges the audience right into domestic melodrama. An obese, blind woman is watching TV in the company of her drunken partner, who momentarily is aggressive and violent toward her. Suddenly, friends and acquaintances start arriving in the living room, including a handsome, lithe stranger, Juvenal (played by Skeet Ulrich). The end-point of all this chaos and confusion in low-rent surroundings is an unexpected miracle: suddenly, the blind woman can see. Which leaves one immediately wondering: was it the whack to her head that caused this or the divine intervention of the young, angelic, Christ-like man? All the way through this pre-credits stunner and the credits that follow and onto the next scene, runs a catchy, slow building riff by Dave Grohl: a hard driving, guitar and drums combo very much in the cool tradition of the music in Get Shorty and Pulp Fiction. Even though he's essentially a restrained, self-effacing, classical, even academic director, Schrader has this much of the young buck in him: when he puts Grohl's musical score together with his subtle camera moves, Touch really rocks, and its filmmaking craft is a total pleasure to imbibe.
There are a whole bunch of intrigues that spin out from this opening scene. Christopher Walken plays Bill Hill, a suspiciously gentle ex-evangelist who's still looking for his main chance at commercial success. Bill starts tracking down Juvenal because he wants to be his manager, his agent. However, Juvenal is an extremely protected figure: a priest at a local rehabilitation centre keeps him from the glare of the media, and from possible shysters like Bill. Bill has an ingenious plan: he gets his sprightly, rather stylish young friend Lynn (played by Bridget Fonda) to go into the rehabilitation centre dead drunk, so as to make a connection with Juvenal. And they connect, alright. There's another character also keen to get his hands on Juvenal: a scary but quite comic figure played by Tom Arnold, an ultra-conservative Christian called August who will do anything to win some media attention for his cause. August is on a short fuse, and the closer he gets to the somewhat sleazy world that Bill moves in, the quicker it becomes apparent that the plot's slow burn towards violence is going to centre on Arnold and his sudden, mad, unpredictable moves in this whole complicated game around Juvenal.
There are many questions and ambiguities in this narrative set-up – duplicities and double agendas, hidden and suggested possibilities. One is always wondering what the real motivations of the characters are, what is potentially going to be revealed about them. Who is angling or scamming, and, if so, scamming for what exactly, in secret alliance with whom? And who is sincere, when exactly do they begin to go straight, play fair or become altruistic? And what about Juvenal himself? He is without doubt, a blessed figure: the audience sees the stigmata open up on his body, the sacred blood flow, and very sick people suddenly healed at his touch. But there's a marvellous sequence, split across two scenes far apart in the movie, where Juvenal starts to doubt himself, and he approaches a seriously disabled man sitting alone in a mall. Schrader keeps the audience on tender hooks as to the outcome of that little expedition. Juvenal's private problem is rather delicate: it looks as if, once he starts discovering love and sex with Lynn, he also starts losing his divine power. Although, as with a lot in this film, that's a theme that goes mostly unspoken, down in the hidden, under-the-surface part of the narrative iceberg.
But even with all these intrigues, Touch is not really much of a mystery film. As a matter of fact, it’s possible to be a bit disappointed or even feel a little short-changed by the film on this level. It starts out a bit like a Joseph Mankiewicz film of the 1950s, like Five Fingers (1952), obsessed with a dozen tantalising variations on scamming, duplicity and success. But many of the really interesting questions of psychological motivation it raises along these lines tend to get lost, to disappear or die away in the course of things. Touch is really a film of character portraits, delivered in a very laid-back manner. It's about a milieu, a world, not a completely seedy or underground world but a somewhat tawdry working-class one where everyone is some kind of oddity, has some unique system or logic buzzing around inside their heads. It's the quietly screwball collision and meshing of these inner logics and how they manifest themselves in strange and unpredictable actions that gives Touch its genuine Elmore Leonard aura. There are moments where this understated complexity even reminded me of the stories and characters created by Raymond Carver, and of Robert Altman's mosaic-film from Carver, Short Cuts (1993). The actors, especially Walken who gives one of his most wonderful and subtle turns, meet the challenge of embodying this off-centre, floating mood.
Touch doesn't entirely sustain itself all the way on any level. Movies that play on the tension between belief and doubt, that equivocate between divine revelation and grubby exposé, often have big problems finding an ending that really works and really satisfies. If the movie is going to come down affirming the base reality of everything venal and earthly, it risks leaving the audience with a very alienating and bitter after taste – and so it better have the courage of that dark, bitter conviction, the way that Polanski's movies do. But, if a film goes the other way, if it wants to come down finally on the side of the miraculous, then it's going to have to produce one hell of a spectacular and convincing miracle for the audience. Carl Dreyer could be trusted to pull this one off, as he did in his classic Ordet (1954), but I'm not sure that Breaking the Waves, for instance, did. Without disclosing which way Schrader chooses to end up with in Touch, I will say this: part of the fascination of this filmmaker is his own personal ambivalence, torn between a love for the 'transcendental' or spiritual in cinema, and his gift for irony, urbane showmanship, for the wink of the eye that lets on to us that a trick is being played.
© Adrian Martin June 1997
1. Wim Wenders, “The American Dream”, in Emotion Pictures: Reflections on the Cinema (London: Faber and Faber, 1986), pp. 122-3. back