A Few Cures for the Summertime Blues

by Patrick Taggart

Two weeks in Europe deprived of American film and then, boom! - Living in Oblivion, The Usual Suspects, Clockers. Are perceptions of film forever changed? Is it safe to give up a habit of mainstream film for an extended period and then plunge back into the cinematic waters - not in the shallow end - but with three successive independent films of surpassing iconoclasm? Do I give a damn if I ever see a film like While You Were Sleeping again?

Well, it would be great to end every vacation with such a choice collection. I know this experience is flukish, a product of my own forced withdrawal from the everyday scene combined with the availability of some remarkable films that have arrived as the summer blockbusters fade. But let's savor it.

The specific way in which I intend to savor this scenario is to see each of these films a second time.

As Marge Baumgarten makes plain in her review of The Usual Suspects, a film should not require a second viewing. The repeat viewing should be an entirely voluntary, giddily anticipated experience. The person who chooses to see Last Year at Marienbad a second time in order to find out what was missed on first go-round probably does so with the same enthusiasm as reserved for a visit to the car wash.

The Usual Suspects is the perfect kind of film for repeat viewings. Of course, the plotting is non-linear and initially somewhat disorienting. But the compelling reason is not to get clear on the story (that weaves itself neatly together by film's end anyway) but (1) to savor the terrific performances by a platoon of highly watchable performers led by the marvelously expressive but stone-faced Kevin Spacey; and (2) to get a closer, clearer peak at screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie's terrific story structure, which suggests both a maze and a jigsaw puzzle.

I'm almost stunned that The Usual Suspects has been given rather wide distribution and not shuttled off in near-obscurity to arthouses. The richly nuanced characters and the told-in-flashback narrative are hardly staples of the mainstream style. But feedback from "ordinary" viewers (not Village mavens) has been generally very positive.

In its somewhat unusual narrative style, The Usual Suspects shares a common element with Spike Lee's Clockers. Lee's film, which can properly be called a comeback, also employs a non-linear narrative, if not to the degree of the other movie.

At least two qualities recommend it for repeat viewing. The first is style - something Lee's films have always possessed, sometimes at toxic levels. Jungle Fever, Lee's observation of an interracial romance, was polluted with an overbearing musical score that was often as loud as the dialogue. (This quirk shows up once or twice in Clockers.) Crooklyn is a demonstration of the inadvisability of awarding a director final cut, given its absurdly long running time (132 minutes) and that distorted sequence set in the suburbs.

But in Clockers, Lee has put a leash on himself, and put his style in service to the extraordinarily compelling story by Richard Price. As with Soderbergh's The Underneath, Clockers is filmed in a variety of lighting conditions and appears to have been shot in different film stocks or employing a variety of processing techniques. The effect is certainly arresting, but never distracting, and some scenes, like those on the street where drug deals and intimidation are merely part of the landscape, has a jittery, documentary tone.

Lee's second great achievement is with his actors. He has never particularly seemed to be an actor's director; too often his performers demonstrate a sameness that seems to come from an instruction to speak loudly or shout. The actors in Clockers, toplined by Harvey Keitel, all bring rich shadings to their characters. There's also spontaneity in extended scenes of dialogue; one in particular, in which an enraged mother confronts the nominal protagonist, a drug dealer, is almost terrifying in its intensity.

There may be no overwhelming reason to see Living in Oblivion a second time, but just try to stop me. This is the indie Day for Night, a dry, wry, and frequently uproarious comedy about filmmaking. The primary motivation to see this clever film again is simply Steve Buscemi, the John Wayne of urban independent films. Is it possible to tire of watching this quirky character?

The film contains surprises that, of course, are gone on second viewing. On initial viewing, the film's first big surprise is as unexpected as any I can remember - not as scary but just as thrilling as that moment Alan Arkin lunged at Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark. The film is enjoyable the second time for the same reason a good joke gets laughs after years of repetition. This is just a funny, funny film, and if you don't share an unbridled enthusiasm for Buscemi, there's always Catherine Keener, who delivers a truly great performance.

All of this and Smoke, too. It's good to be back.

While You Were Sleeping played on the airplane during the return trip. Strictly speaking, this can't be called a repeat viewing, since I walked out after 40 minutes when it was in the theatres.

It's clear this is the perfect airplane movie - soft and windy, capable of surviving the viewer's short naps and interruptions for food and beverage service. Obviously captive, I decided to watch it through, and found myself laughing occasionally along with several other passengers.

The first sign of jet lag. n

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