The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.
—Jason Robards channeling William Faulkner
If anything indicates the accelerating media culture during the past 10 years, it’s the exponential growth of hype. Today, each new release comes with an avalanche of inflated blather. Movies aren’t simply let loose on an unsuspecting public any longer: they are packaged with good reviews already in their hip pockets, report cards issued on the first day of class. The Rundown, starring the Rock, isn’t just an action movie, “It’s a comic bone-cruncher!” (Newsweek). And Cold Creek Manor, a creaky vehicle starring Dennis Quaid that is probably being pressed into DVDs even as you read this, is “top notch fun! A terrific thriller!” (So says that lion of restraint, Larry King.)
Time was—and yes, this will sound snooty—criticism was for, well, critics. These were a discreet set of people schooled in the subject matter at hand. Their words held meaning, carried weight. Now, an ability to discern, to cleave wheat from chaff, has been lost.
The particular occasion for my ire is the cover of the DVD release of the Mark Frost film Storyville lavishes the following praise: Storyville, the advertising copy reads, “is a modern-day Chinatown.”
Whoa. Hold on, there, tiger. You’re treading on sacred ground now. Comparing a movie to Chinatown isn’t just your average piece of Jeanne Wolf or Joel Siegel puffery. In the history of film, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) is canon. It serves, along with a handful of other great movies, as an archetype of the modern Golden Age of American cinema. It’s credited with restoring the period film, reviving the genre film, and ushering in American movies with ambivalent morality. (Syd Field used it as the basis for his ubiquitous screenwriting book.) Comparing a second-rate piece of Southern gothic gossamer like Storyville to a film like Chinatown is like saying your neighborhood Borders is a modern day Library of Alexandria.
So, while it isn’t all that fair to place the two works side by side, as the saying goes, they brought it up. Let’s go ahead: for a film so highly touted, Storyville‘s DVD release arrives with no explanation concerning its special place in history. This is the barest of bare-bone issues. There are no audio commentaries, no special features, just the movie and (incredible for anything released in 2003) only in a full screen presentation. There is no widescreen cut of the film available. That is a grand shame, because on the surface (which is where the movie stays), Storyville looks downright fine. Set in New Orleans, and filled with ripeness and a decaying, wilting grandeur that suits material of this kind, the film promises more fun than it delivers. Despite its rich locale, there’s a troubling generic colorlessness to the entire enterprise. It’s more blah, less Blanche DuBois.
Cray Fowler (James Spader), scion of a family that progressed from the bayou to big bucks in a single generation, is a Democratic candidate for Congress. His candidacy is masterminded by a sneaky Pete of a guy, his Uncle Clifford (Jason Robards), who cups a glass of bourbon like he’s gripping a bloody knife. He’s all backroom, not backwoods, despite his fondness for duck hunting. And Robards plays him with such snake-oil-salesman smarminess that he might as well be wearing a sweatshirt with word “EVIL” stamped on it.
Cray is ambitious and not without some moral gray areas of his own. He’s separated from his twit of a wife (played by Justine Arlin, she’s a cardboard imitation of Jessica Lange in Everybody’s All-American) and fooling around with local prosecutor Natalie Tate (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer). Before long, Cray is (easily) lured into a sexual encounter with a mysterious Vietnamese woman, Lee (Charlotte Lewis), in an aikido studio in the French Quarter.
That sentence is correct. Bourbon Street may not necessarily be known for its martial arts instruction, but the movie, to its credit, is willing to get a little strange when it needs to. Lee is charged with killing her father. (The headline in the local newspaper reads “Asian Woman Held In Father’s Death.”) Cray, a former public defender who hasn’t tried a case in three years, signs on as her defense counsel. The prosecutor is, naturally, Natalie. Uncle Clifford and Cray’s campaign manager (Jeff Perry) aren’t too thrilled that their candidate for Congress has taken on a high-profile murder case on the eve of the election. But you know, that pretty much happens all the time.
While defending Lee, Cray is also looking into some shady mineral and oil lease deals that made his family rich. (His campaign isn’t filled with speeches to the Rotary Club, that’s for sure.) At one point, Cray tells prominent local lawyer Nathan LeFleur (Michael Warren) that he knows the murder and the oil leases are connected. He just knows it! Cray is several steps ahead of the viewers, who, at this point, can find no earthly reason why the two are related except that the plot demands it.
Sigh. Does this sound like Chinatown to you? Okay, it is a tale of “politics, lust, and greed,” but it isn’t enough to throw these ingredients Emeril-style into a pot and hope they come out as a gourmet dish. What makes Polanski’s film a classic was his willingness to push beyond the narrative, and with that, the conventions of the genre. Jack Nicholson’s J.J. Gittes sits at the center of the film but never drives any of the action. He’s a small man trapped in a maelstrom of events set in motion by more powerful men. By the time he figures out the secret, it’s too late. As Robert Towne says in the recent documentary on ‘70s film, A Decade Under The Influence (2003), “‘Chinatown’ became a word that meant the futility of good intentions.”
In contrast, Storyville has nothing to say about Cray’s powerlessness in the midst of larger forces. It really has nothing to say at all, except that your uncle just might be one shifty bastard. And, actually, this is where the film deserves the least charity. The shock comes when you realize Storyville does indeed resemble Chinatown, but not thematically or stylistically. Instead, the movie simply rips off two key plot elements from the Polanski film, so painfully obviously that it merits an audible groan when they are revealed. Let’s just say that Cray’s uncle isn’t who he thinks it is, and leave it at that.
And for all that, the film isn’t wholly without merits. Spader, as he has often done in his career, turns in a fine, left-of-center performance. His ability to appear more morally grounded than he truly is serves him well here. (Nor does he attempt a Cajun accent that sounds like he swallowed a mouthful of lava, like most actors who make Louisiana pictures.) The film’s quirkiness is appealing in a Saturday late-nite sort of way, and you can’t blame Frost, co-creator of the TV series Twin Peaks, for the Chinatown hype. We can postulate that such a comparison wasn’t his idea, though the lack of a director’s commentary keeps the question on the table.
Finally, in all fairness, there is one resounding point in Storyville‘s favor. It reunites Michael Warren and Charles Haid, the actors who played police officers Hill and Renko in NBC’s Hill Street Blues. Warren and Haid (who plays a porno photographer here) never have a scene together, but it’s good to see them anyway. Hill Street was a show ahead of its time, in which cops weren’t always clean and heroes grappled with societal ills too large for them to overcome. You could say that, in a sense, Hill and Renko walked the streets of their own Chinatown. But then, who would want to make that sort of comparison?