God Said, “Ugh”

Peep shows and confessionals–and a Rushmore postscript.

Andrew Kevin Walker, the screenwriter of Seven (1995) and of the new snuff-film thriller 8MM, must have grown up watching hundreds of hours of kinky detective shows. My guess is that they left him aroused but essentially ungratified. Walker has made his fortune by packing in all the maggoty, sadistic details that the creators of Hunter and The Commish left to the imagination and that even such coolly clinical cop series as The X-Files and Homicide have opted to leaven with reminders of the fundamental beneficence of humankind. Walker’s clean-cut detective heroes (Brad Pitt in Seven, Nicolas Cage in 8MM) embark on odysseys into the nether region, where they view atrocity after atrocity before arriving at the source: an evil that is pure, unrepentant, and infectious. You can lop off its head, but the skull goes on grinning, serenely confident that it has passed on its disease to its slayer.

David Fincher’s Seven thrust Walker’s worldview into your viscera; I can still recall that film’s gun battle, set in a long corridor, with its slingshot angles and bullets that seemed to explode beside your head, and the ghastly sight, both riveting and repellent, of a partially flayed, obese corpse, its milky white blubber framing intestines that looked like blue balloons. Joel Schumacher, the director of 8MM, has none of Fincher’s graphic originality, but the material still carries a lurid charge. Cage plays Tom Welles, an earnest, professionally polite private investigator summoned to the manse of a recently deceased tycoon. The elderly widow (Myra Carter) has discovered in a safe an 8 millimeter film that appears to document the murder of a young woman. The appalled widow needs to know if the killing is real or simulated and hands Welles the financial resources he needs to ferret out the filmmakers and their possibly unfortunate leading lady.

Leaving his harried wife (Catherine Keener) and infant daughter in wintry Pennsylvania, the detective travels from Cleveland to North Carolina to the subterranean S/M parlors of Los Angeles to a production office in the meat market of New York City. What he sees twists Cage’s hitherto poker face into an increasingly Eastwoodesque grimace. His eyes bulge. His monotone verges on the point of exploding into hundreds of hysterical semitones. He stops taking calls from his wife (always clutching the baby) on his cell phone. A wisecracking porn shop clerk (Joaquin Phoenix), whom Welles has hired as a tour guide, delivers the film’s thematic warning: “There are things that you see that you can’t un-see, that get into your head. … Before you know it you’re in it, deep in it. … Dance with the devil and the devil don’t change, the devil changes you.” I won’t spell out where 8MM leads but, trust me, there are no surprises. As in Seven, there are devils and they dance and everyone gets down. And down. And down.

Schumacher (Batman & Robin, 1997), a one-time costume designer and art director, usually exhibits the aesthetic of an interior decorator, his pictures boasting the most cluttered mise en scènes I’ve ever mise en seen. I’m impressed that in 8MM he has managed to muzzle his fruitier impulses and work in a chill, stripped-down style, reverting to form only in the black leather porno basements and his characteristically semicoherent action scenes. The ambience isn’t as clammy as Fincher’s in Seven, but it’s dank enough, with eerie intimations of a demon lying in wait. The score by Mychael Danna features faraway muezzin wails–calls that could be emanating from the girl in the flickering movie who’s about to be slain. She stares doe-eyed into the camera, like the naked waif in Edvard Munch’s Puberty, who seems just at that instant to realize her true vulnerability.

It gets to you, this movie–gets you titillated, then spooked, then suffused with righteous fury. Murderous fury. It’s only after the picture ends that you realize that Welles hasn’t really danced with the devil, at least not by the standards of vigilante movies. He doesn’t get a sexual charge out of the brutality, nor does he develop a penchant for torturing innocents. Apart from his stricken expressions and a couple of nasty wounds, there’s nothing even to suggest that he’s damned by taking justice into his own hands. If ever bad guys deserved to be executed, it’s the bad guys in 8MM. They promise they’re going to torture and kill the hero’s wife and baby daughter, they cast aspersions on his masculinity, they sneer at the notion that anyone would care about their victims. It’s up to Welles to say, “I care”–BLAM! What’s to feel guilty about?

Movies like 8MM make me appreciate what Paul Schrader tried to do when he chose to bring Russell Banks’ novel Affliction to the screen. Having written Taxi Driver (1976) and Hardcore (1979) and other vigilante pictures in which the underlying motives of the avenger are called into question, Schrader embraced the story of a vigilante who turns out to be dead wrong, driven mad by an increasing sense of his own impotence in a world that has left him behind. Schumacher worked with similar themes in the poorly thought through Falling Down (1993), in which Michael Douglas has a spell of road rage and doesn’t cool off. Next to these films, the moral contortions of 8MM seem especially bogus, a sadomasochistic peep show booth pretending to be a confessional.

The test of a piece of storytelling is whether its audience can forget that it’s listening to a history–something in the past tense–and enter the living present. That doesn’t happen in God Said, “Ha!” Julia Sweeney’s film of her own one-woman show. The subject is cancer–Sweeney’s late brother’s and then her own. Sweeney stands in the middle of the stage and tells the off-screen (but audible) audience how her brother got sick and took up residence in her small Hollywood house and how her parents moved down from Spokane, Wash., and threw her life into an uproar. She comes off as extremely smart and likable–and she looks better than she did on Saturday Night Live, with the soft face and sensuous blue eyes of Elizabeth McGovern. Her monologue has some funny, dislocating observations: the unsophisticated ways of her folks juxtaposed against her newly acquired yuppie tastes, her need to sneak around like a teen-ager when a boyfriend comes to stay and, especially, her dislocation when, after taking her brother to the hospital for chemotherapy, she finds herself suddenly playing his part, as if, she says, she’s at a square dance.

But God Said, “Ha!”–which has won praise for Sweeney’s artistry and candor–is the sort of work that gives one-person shows their bad rap. Few of the good bits flow together; nothing builds. It’s mostly one thing after another: I went here, then I went there, then I went to a bookstore and cut a big fart and someone I didn’t remember from the Groundlings recognized me, then I tossed a cigarette I wasn’t supposed to be smoking out the car window and then noticed that the back seat was on fire, and then … Occasionally, she turns to look into another camera–a move that unintentionally evokes the old Chevy Chase “Weekend Update” shtick–but the movie is otherwise static, and the lines sound as if she has said them hundreds of times before.

S weeney tells instead of shows, declining to haul out the big guns–her immense comic gifts–to put her characters across. I have a feeling she must think it would be vulgar to get too showbizzy, too gonzo, too Saturday Night Live-ish with this material, given that it’s about (hush) cancer. But then why do it? What’s the point of going out in front of an audience with a tale of illness if she’s not going to bring all her imaginative resources to bear on it–to transform it into something that transcends its relatively routine particulars and gives us something to hold onto when our time for tragedy comes?

Julia Sweeney chose to take the story of her brother’s illness and hers to the stage and then the screen; Pauline Kael made no such decision, which is why Rushmore director Wes Anderson’s New York Times account of visiting the retired New Yorker critic seemed an unseemly invasion of privacy. After writing about Anderson’s piece in my review of his movie, I sent a letter to the New York T imes, which printed it Sunday. Click to read my letter, Anderson’s response, and my annotations.