Part 2: The Virgin Suicides to The Blair Witch Project (May - August 1999)

[23 March 2009]

By PopMatters Staff

cover art

The Virgin Suicides

Director: Sofia Coppola
Cast: James Woods, Kathleen Turner, Kirsten Dunst, Josh Hartnett, Scott Glenn, Hanna R. Hall

(Paramount Classics; US theatrical: 12 May 1999 (General release); 1999)

The Virgin Suicides Director: Sophia Coppola

To begin with, they weren’t all virgins. 

In a movie that struggles for an epiphany, a climax (if not an orgasm), it needs to be said that 14-year-old Lux goes to her grave as the only Lisbon sister to lose her virginity. Whether the title of Sofia Coppola’s film includes her is debatable; whether Lux died before recklessly and, yes, finally colliding with another person for the first time is not. 

Does it make a difference? Maybe. After all, everyone remembers their first time, don’t they? 

And The Virgin Suicides is rich with first times: The 1993 novel by the same name was the first by Jeffrey Eugenides; the film, released six years later, was the feature film debut of Sofia Coppola. For 16-year-old Kirsten Dunst, who played the carnally charged Lux, it was a first turn as an object of desire—only five years removed from a part in Little Women and four years from Jumanji, the first film that suggested she might someday be capable of tongue-lassoing Spider-Man in a soaked-through blouse. 

Like most first times, the film is a learning experience for everyone involved. Both Eugenides and Coppola received greater acclaim for their sophomore efforts—a His ‘n’ Hers awards set, a Pulitzer Prize for Eugenides’ Middlesex, a screenplay Oscar for Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Dunst’s performance earned her more high-profile, if not glamorous, gigs; the same could be said for Josh Hartnett, who was only a year removed from The Faculty‘s squinty, slouchy rebel, Zeke Tyler, yet seemed reborn in Coppola’s film as the slithering temptation named Trip Fontaine. 

The cast and crew can walk away from their first times, of course. What makes The Virgin Suicides such an incredible film is the simple fact that the Lisbon girls cannot. 

Why not? The world of The Virgin Suicides is rich with meaning yet void of answers. Scenes are shot on a palette of rose water and honey, pierced by plumes of intoxicated blues and clouds of wrist-blood reds—Trip Fontaine’s car, for instance, or the popsicle Lux nurses at the film’s beginning. The ethereal music of the French duo Air is ever-present, punched up on occasion by the incomparable sex appeal of Heart. 

In fact, from the death of Cecelia Lisbon through the next year in the lives of the remaining Lisbon girls—school uniforms, a meek father, a domineering mother, a prom that feels like liberation and a grounding the seems like a death sentence—the film aches, lusts and wants as hungrily as the girls at its center. Especially Lux Lisbon. 

Of the five Lisbon girls, the camera sticks on Lux with the rapt attention of a gaggle of horny teenage boys. (The film and novel are famously narrated by ‘we’, a chorus of neighborhood boys, male hormones tracking their goddesses.) We see her soaked through with sunlight in a field, playing footsy with boys under the dinner table. We see her lunge through the window of Fontaine’s sports car while Heart plays “Crazy On You” and Lux follows suit, licking Trip’s mouth and throat. On prom night we see through her skirt to where the name ‘Trip Fontaine’ is written in Magic Marker on her panties. And the day after prom, we wake up beside her on the football field, abandoned. 

Broken somehow by this experience, and on a new trajectory, Lux and her sisters begin their disappearing act. Coppola, meanwhile, continues to gingerly nod at warning signs for depression all around the sisters. And like the innocent boys that gather scraps and souvenirs left by the Lisbons, we try to figure out the clues. Yet we’re never presented with anything more than the tokens the boys collect. When we try to piece the puzzle together, we construct a giant circle with a hole in the middle where the Lisbon sisters used to be, and fall straight through to the bottom. 

In a capsule review for The Virgin Suicides, The New York Times notes that the film “includes sexual situations and a morbid fascination with premature death. ” The first is certainly true. As for the second, well, the girls don’t seem to have any fascination with death. In The Virgin Suicides, what’s most shockingly memorable, or memorably shocking, is how quickly the Lisbon girls opt of life, their true fascination—how they race towards that final first time before experiencing any more. Brendan Fitzgerald

cover art

Buena Vista Social Club

Director: Wim Wenders
Cast: Luis Barzaga, Joachim Cooder, Ry Cooder, Juan de Marcos González, Julio Alberto Fernández, Ibrahim Ferrer, Carlos González

(Road Movies Filmproduktion; US theatrical: 4 Jun 1999; 1999)

Official Site

Buena Vista Social Club Director: Wim Wenders

Wim Wenders’ documentary on the music of the Buena Vista Social Club offers a real portrait of modern Cuba, juxtaposed with its ties to a more heady past. Ry Cooder’s collaboration with many of the prominent Cuban musicians of the ‘40s and ‘50s resulted in the hugely successful 1997 release Buena Vista Social Club. One year later, Wenders accompanied Cooder and his son, percussionist Joachim Cooder, back to Cuba. Having heard Cooder’s initial recordings of the ensemble and interested in learning more about these previously forgotten musicians, Wenders combined interviews, recording studio footage, and a live concert performance at Carnegie Hall to present a more complete picture of the making of the album and all the elements that went into its origin.

Much of the documentary’s success comes from its subjects (Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez, Omara Portuondo, Eliades Ochoa, Barbarito Torres, and Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez, among others), a compelling group filled with wonderful stories and boundless energy for their music. Immediately engaging and moving, the music goes beyond its initial buoyancy or sadness to create a poignancy that may not be as obvious to listeners of the CD, particularly those who do not speak Spanish. While music often transcends language, it is in understanding the stories told in song, as well as the stories of those performing the songs, that a real immediacy to the material is created. 

Wenders spends a good portion of time with the musicians in the studio and there is an intimacy to the recording process that is paralleled in the footage of the Buena Vista Social Club’s performance at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. Though far from intimate, the Carnegie Hall show represents the culmination of their success. There is such obvious, pure joy in the performance – not to mention, a great deal of experience and skill (see Torres playing his laud behind his back on the blistering “El Cuarto de Tula”) – on display that as a viewer, one cannot help but be moved by such exuberance.

Highlights such as Omara Portuondo walking down a street in Cuba singing as a local woman spontaneously joins in, or Ruben Gonzalez surrounded by young ballerinas dancing along to his piano playing in an old dance studio, or Compay Segundo’s story of lighting his grandmother’s cigars as a boy: all of these moments offer a glimpse into the bold personalities that make up the Buena Vista Social Club, as well as present a look at Cuba rarely seen to American audiences. It seems almost impossible to capture the energy of the live performances seen in this film, yet Cooder’s production in the recording studio allows for these musicians to present their music as in-the-moment as possible. It is both Cooder’s and Wenders’ obvious enthusiasm for this ensemble that translates their story so well. Buena Vista Social Club gives the music a chance to shine while also placing it and those who make it in a context both unique and revealing – an essential film that seems even more important today, as many of these performers have passed on. J.M. Suarez

Human Traffic and more

cover art

Human Traffic

Director: Justin Kerrigan
Cast: John Simm, Lorraine Pilkington, Shaun Parkes, Nicola Reynolds, Danny Dyer, Dean Davies, Carl Cox, Howard Marks

(Miramax; US theatrical: 2 May 2000 (General release); UK theatrical: 2 Jun 1999 (General release); 1999)

Human Traffic Director: Justin Kerrigan

Ten years after its release, Human Traffic can be viewed as an autopsy of the Ecstasy Generation that came of age at the turn of the millennium. While the story, the characters, and the atmosphere explored by writer/director Justin Kerrigan focused directly on the British clubbing subculture, the film, as it did a decade ago, has a wider almost anthropological resonance because it taps into many of the tangible common denominators—along with the more intangible overall vibe—that unified the global rave subculture.

Human Traffic puts up on screen the music, the DJs, the dancefloors, and the drugs, all cultural signifiers that a party kid on the American side of the Atlantic could easily recognize and identify with as he or she stepped into the parallel community and lifestyle of the British club kid on the other side of the ocean. Despite the idiosyncrasies of the British take on raving (which, much like British punk, provides further insight into British culture at large) Americans, Asians, and Continental Europeans saw themselves within the onscreen wreckage portrayed in Human Traffic. This was important, especially on the American side of the Atlantic, because despite the underground subculture eventually going mainstream in a global way—everywhere but seemingly America, that is—at one time this was a subculture of opposition. 

Kerrigan’s characters clearly play to the cultural dissidence that was such an integral psychological component for the many members of this global underground. As the six main characters partake in their pre-club ritual before “going off to never-never land with [their] chosen family”, they sit around a table having a pint, taking turns denouncing Hanson and the Spice Girls, and other elements of atrociously grotesque popular culture, as “cheese on toast bollocks”, all the while reaffirming their own peculiar, but shared, cultural ideology. It was an us-against-them attitude that drew them closer to one another as an organic unit, collectively stimulated by empathy-inducing drugs and bound together by a love for spiritually affirming music. Witnessing this on screen in America was a reaffirming, if not eerily familiar, experience. While the rest of the ever-provincial U.S. maybe didn’t get it, it was okay because the rest of the world apparently did. This undoubtedly fueled the fire of the American rave subculture, so much so that Human Traffic was necessary viewing for any party kid and became one of the subculture’s few cult films.     

The film’s strength and its reason for maintaining relevance clearly resides in its role as a subcultural text. Aesthetically, the film has not aged all that well. A decade ago it meshed gracefully with other British Cinema, such as Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996) or Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1999). Human Traffic utilizes similar off-beat techniques like the twisted use of voice over narration, fast-panning cameras, in your face soundtracks, and bitingly satirical monologues. But other than a few wickedly inventive scenes, such the fast-food eatery which has breakdancers working behind the counter using their robotic motions to simulate the life of a fast-food employee (which also eerily anticipates McDonald’s transparent use of hip-hop as a marketing tool today), Human Traffic doesn’t have an aesthetic leg to stand on next to some of the other great cinema that came out of Britain at this time. 

And perhaps more disappointing than the film’s partial failure to stand the test of time is how the music within the film, such as Fatboy Slim, Death in Vegas, Carl Cox, and Armand Van Helden, is so utterly irrelevant today. Inadvertently, this points to a larger problem within the club/rave subculture—the inability for any of its music to last. With DJs constantly trying to stay ahead of an ever shortening curve, the growing accessibility of electronic music production equipment, and the ready-made dissemination network of the internet which caused an explosion in the availability of music, the turnover of music within this scene boggled the mind from the beginning.  As a result, despite music being the binding thread of both the wider subculture and the individual crews as portrayed in Human Traffic, there was a wider lack of any sort of universal soundtrack or canon that ravers/clubbers could return to for ideological reinforcement as time went on.  Sadly, the trance music that propelled this chemical culture elicits chuckles now by those who lost themselves in it a decade ago.
As Human Traffic perfectly conveys, the comedown was always in sight for the children of ecstasy. They were reminded of it on weekly basis when, at some point, the music would stop, the night would end, the group would disband.  What the film doesn’t show, but only hints at, is that eventually, one by one, each member of the crew would drop out of the scene for good until what was an elite partying unit of cultural guerillas became nothing more than a broken family.  Nevertheless, a decade after its release, Human Traffic is even more important than it was in 1999 because it serves as potent reminder to so many of their cherished Ecstasy Honeymoon.  Louis J. Battaglia

cover art


Director: John Sayles
Cast: David Strathairn, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Vanessa Martinez, Kris Kristofferson

(Sony Pictures; US theatrical: 4 Jun 1999 (General release); 1999)

Limbo Director: John Sayles

Independent filmmaker John Sayles is well known for depicting little-seen communities and the interwoven connections between a large group of unique characters. One of his best films is Limbo, which presents the lives of small-town Alaskans dealing with troubling histories. Unlike Sayles’ more ambitious pictures like Lone Star and Silver City, this story narrows in on just a few major characters. This personal focus creates a subtle charm that remains with you for a long time. Adding a few sharp jabs at developers and shallow tourism, Sayles delivers one of his strongest pictures.

David Straitharn stars as Joe Gastineau, a worn-down fisherman trying to still make peace with a deadly mistake. His life changes with the appearance of nightclub singer Donna De Angelo (Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio), who’s struggling to raise her daughter Noelle (Vanessa Martinez) and make a living. Performing at weddings and small bars in Alaska, she’s far removed from the showbiz world.  Once a rising star himself, Gastineau’s just trying to get by doing odd jobs around town. The local denizens, including “Smilin” Jack Johannson (Kris Kristofferson), remind him of his past and make escape nearly impossible. The burgeoning connection with Donna offers a possible outlet, but this is well beyond the typical Hollywood romance. Sayles complements the story well with music, with Mastrontonio performing classic tunes from Tom Waits and Richard Thompson. Mason Daring’s score builds the right atmosphere to match the beautiful, vicious landscape.

Sayles excels at crafting realistic characters living in an actual community. Few directors take the time to explore the social and economic connections that shape our lives. In past works, he’s presented baseball’s Black Sox scandal (Eight Men Out), union struggles in West Virginia mining country (Matewan), and the difficulties within modern cities (City of Hope), to name a few.  Limbo‘s first half introduces us to a wide array of interesting people and promises a certain type of movie. Then Sayles pulls the rug out from under us and shifts to a struggle for survival for the three leads. Avoiding the pratfalls of a typical thriller, he focuses on the growing relationships while danger lurks in the background. It’s a surprisingly sweet venture that builds the tension because we’ve grown attached to Gastineau and the De Angelo women. Framing their time together around a diary discovered by Noelle, he develops a strong bond that differs from the expected formula.

Released in June 1999, Limbo received only minor recognition during awards season amidst the usual strong crop of winter contenders. Some viewers and critics disapproved of its open-ended conclusion, which left them feeling cheated. I believe the ending works perfectly and leaves just the right impression. The story’s key moments occur in the second-last scene, which solidifies the new family and their future. Their final destination doesn’t really matter and wouldn’t create the same impression as Sayles’ choice. As Bruce Springsteen’s “Lift Me Up” plays over the credits, we’re left with a sweet, upbeat feeling even while the mystery remains. A forgotten gem within the long-time director’s career, Limbo deserves a second look. Dan Heaton

Run Lola Run and more

cover art

Run Lola Run

Director: Tom Tykwer
Cast: Franka Potente, Moritz Bleibtreu, Herbert Knaup, Nina Petri, Armin Rohde, Joachim Król

(Sony Classics; US theatrical: 11 Jun 1999; 1999)

Official Site

Run Lola Run Director: Tom Tykwer

From the philosophical musings that begin the film to the fast-paced narrative set to techno music, Run Lola Run is a film that entertains on a variety of levels. This German film is internationally acclaimed for good reason. It appeals to audiences as a film about crunched time and the possible alternate realities that might be affected by split second decisions, as a postmodern, post-WWII love story, and as an action film that keeps the audience on the edge of its seat. The animated sequences, snap shot realities, and techno score (which includes lyrics by the star of the film, Franka Potente) gives this film a unique and trance-like flavor.

Lola (Franka Potente) literally runs for much of the film as she races to find 100,000 francs to save the life of her boyfriend, Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu). Manni is being tested by his mobster boss and, in a moment of panic, leaves a bag full of money on a train, which is picked up by a bag-man. His trouble begins when Lola stops for cigarettes and her moped is stolen, making it impossible for her to pick up Manni as planned. After losing the bag, he calls her, frantic and desperate, blaming her for the problems and begging her for help. If he doesn’t have the money in 20 minutes, he will be dead.

Lola begs him to wait for her and promises that she will somehow find the money to pay Manni’s boss. She racks her brain and decides upon her father and then dashes out the door. The first scenario does not work out well for Lola. Her father reveals that he is not really her father and that he is leaving Lola and her mother and Lola ends up shot in a robbery gone wrong when she does not make it to Manni in time. The second scenario also does not end well as she is forced to rob her father’s bank at gunpoint and arrives in time only to watch Manni get run over by an ambulance. In the third scenario, Lola secures the money through luck and Manni rediscovers the original money through the help of a fateful glance. Manni saves himself in this third scenario, unaware of all of the trouble Lola has gone through to help him. Thus, rather than ending in tragedy, Lola and Manni walk away from this scenario with a bag full of money—a prize that will, no doubt, change their lives.

Not only do the pieces of this film—the three versions of Lola’s attempts to secure 100,000 francs in only 20 minutes—weave together with interesting variations, but the characters that Lola touches (literally or figuratively) or, in some cases, breezes past, are connected by forces beyond our immediate understanding. Split-second differences in Lola’s run reveal the alternate realities for a woman pushing a baby carriage, a man on a bike, a friend of her father’s pulling out of a garage, a woman making copies, and a homeless man toting his bags.

Run Lola Run includes unreal elements that make the action possible and give the film a magical yet realistic quality. For instance, Lola’s screams have the ability to break glass and this talent may or may not help her to win the necessary money by hitting black 20 twice in a row in a game of roulette. And while the first two scenarios the film presents end badly there is somehow a shift that allows Lola to make her mad dash until the end results are not death for these two lovers. Further, there is no rhyme or reason to the characters’ fates; characters who behave badly (like the woman who cusses Lola) wins the lottery in the scenario where she is the nastiest and ends up spreading the word of God in the scenario where she is most benign. And some events, like the car crash of her father’s friend, happen (with different results) regardless of the scenario.

Despite the unrealistic or magical qualities there is a realness to this film that we see, for instance, in the scenes between the action. Bathed in red, Lola and Manni lie in bed and discuss first love, and second death, before they get a chance to start over. There is also a realness to the characters like her father, who is at one moment cruel, another moment loving, and another moment detached. Although we see many of the characters only briefly, we see their vulnerabilities and snatches of their stories that bring them to life. And Franka Potente delivers a brilliant performance whether she is running or reflecting.

All in all, Run Lola Run is worth watching again and again if only to catch the details that might be lost in the quick cuts and fast pace. Sarah Hentges

cover art

American Pie

Director: Paul & Chris Weitz
Cast: Jason Biggs, Seann William Scott, Shannon Elizabeth, Alyson Hannigan, Eugene Levy

(Universal Pictures; US theatrical: 9 Jul 1999; 1999)

American Pie Director: Chris & Paul Weitz

In recent years Wedding Crashers and Knocked Up have been credited with mixing chick flick plotting with gross-out gags to achieve immense success (both commercial and critical). But what is easily forgotten is that nearly ten years prior, American Pie was honing this very mold (using the tools laid out for it by There’s Something About Mary) to create a runaway, word-of-mouth box office hit.
In chronicling the efforts of four teenage best friends who make a pact to lose their virginity by their high school prom, American Pie is ribald but not repulsive, sweet but not sentimental. One moment the film has you laughing riotously over the prospect of a teenager simulating intercourse with an apple pie and then the next moment has you heartened by the tenderness of a loving (and forgiving) father-son relationship.
This balance of extremes is crucial to the success of American Pie, as the film masterfully walks the line between schoolboy fantasy and genuine high school memoir. This dichotomy is evidenced in the culminating prom night couplings. Jim’s wild night with a geeky nymphomaniac is countered by Kevin and Vicky’s forced awkwardness; Finch cavorting with a sultry single mother is contrasted by Oz and Heather’s soulful, discrete union. The set pieces for which the film is famous for—bodily fluid-spiked beer, webcam mishaps, and the infamous apple pie tryst—may be played for broad laughs but they are rooted in the familiar.
The old rumor goes that the film was met with skepticism in certain foreign territories because foreigners didn’t find it believable that any American 18-year-old would still be a virgin. Whether or not there’s any truth to the rumor, such a response would likely have generated from the sex-driven advertising and marketing that gets exported from the states. But anyone who watches the film will quickly realize that these teenagers—and the film itself—are obsessed with the prospect of sex, not the reality of it. Consider the scene where Heather visits Oz at work after hours. They don’t scurry to the back for intercourse, rather they talk about their families and where they plan on attending college. It’s the kind of unforced relationship-driven scene featuring what could be considered peripheral characters that you don’t generally find in a sex comedy (or even in the Pie sequels for that matter).
But the real glue that holds the film together is the palpable bond of teenage friendship. The four central characters exercise a kind of fraternal devotion that is infectious and believable. They’re the kind of friends who support Oz’s bizarre decision to join the school choir, put up with Finch’s many eccentricities, and will even be seen talking to Jim in school the day after the whole webcam debacle. High school friendships this strong? Hard to swallow on paper for sure but the performers make it look natural.
Let’s not forget the film’s long lasting cultural impact either. Ten years down the road and we can thank American Pie for giving us the screen debut of Seann William Scott, popularizing the comic styling of Eugene Levy (which paved the way for the success of Fred Willard and John Michael Higgins), raising awareness of the primarily northeastern-viewed Lacrosse, and dispersing the cheeky acronym MILF upon the world—a contribution to adolescent lexicon that I daresay will survive from generation to generation. Stephen Snart

Summer of Sam and more

cover art

South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut

Director: Trey Parker
Cast: Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Mary Kay Bergman, Isaac Hayes, George Clooney, Eric Idle, Mike Judge

(Paramount Pictures; US theatrical: 30 Jun 1999; 1999)

Official Site

South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut Director: Trey Parker

In an excerpt from his 1999 review, Roger Ebert advised, “After making South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, its creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, had better move on. They’ve taken South Park as far as it can go, and beyond.” Ten years later, South Park has embarked on its thirteenth season, and is still skewering all of society’s sacred cows with a satirical fork that has grown sharper with age. When South Park premiered on Comedy Central in the autumn of 1997, it was seen as a cult, cable TV oddity, with throwaway gags involving Christmas Poo, Barbra Streisand as a tyrannical monster, and a mythic woodland creature with Patrick Duffy for a leg. With controversy and ratings subsiding, Parker and Stone unleashed South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut onto the summer movie season of 1999, and reignited a firestorm of outrage all over again. The film’s biting satire over censorship was ripe for a time when Columbine was still on everyone’s mind, yet a gang of animated, cardboard cut-outs with potty mouths were being accused of warping the minds of the nation’s youth. After all, as the conservative crusaders in the South Park world believe, graphic violence in the media is ok, as long as nobody uses any naughty words.

Controversy and agenda aside, the film is downright hilarious, opening with Stan Marsh’s sunny, musical tribute “Mountain Town”, which climaxes with the gang parading around town, singing, “Thank God we live in a quiet, little, redneck, Podunk, white-trash mountain town!” After the boys sneak into the very R-rated Canadian import, Terrence and Phillip in Asses of Fire! and learn a whole new repertoire of vulgarity, the town, in typical fashion, overreacts to the point of waging war on Canada for warping the minds of its youngsters. As war rages overhead, down in hell Satan and his lover Saddam Hussein prepare for a second coming of biblical proportions, while simultaneously balancing a rocky relationship. In one of the films most inspired moments, Satan launches into song, complete with R&B backing vocals, in which he dreams of living “Up There.” As he hits a note higher than Mariah Carey and looks up to earth, the true genius of making Satan a likeable, misunderstood creature while the earth dooms itself with warmongering and intolerance, sums up Trey and Matt’s outlook on society.

Throughout the movie, nearly every race, gender, sexuality and creed is lampooned. The pre-Bush war agenda is attacked, and in the film’s funniest moment, a gung-ho general informs a group of African American cadets that they will be the “human shield” that will protect the white soldiers in battle. When Chef, voiced by the inimitable Isaac Hayes, asks, “Haven’t you ever heard of the Emancipation Proclamation?” the General responds briskly, “I don’t listen to hip-hop!”  It seems silly that even in those heady days at the end of the century, people would react to South Park with such vigor and venom. In the last three years, South Park the series has been attacked by scientologists, the Anti-Defamation League, and been censored by Comedy Central, who refused to run a scene featuring a cartoon depiction of the Muslin prophet Muhammad. You’d think that after ten years, we’d have a sense of humor. Haven’t we learned anything? Meanwhile, Satan and Saddam patiently plot their return. Drew Fortune

cover art

Summer of Sam

Director: Spike Lee
Cast: John Leguizamo, Mira Sorvino, Adrien Brody, Jennifer Esposito, Michael Badalucco

(Buena Vista; US theatrical: 2 Jul 1999 (General release); 1999)

Summer of Sam Director: Spike Lee

Before Al-Qaeda and suicide bombers dominated the news, terror in the United States had names like the Zodiac Killer and the Boston Strangler.  The presence of a psychotic serial-killer can still terrorize a city, driving citizens indoors and turning neighbors on one another. However, several decades ago, we knew of nothing more sinister or evil than the man with no conscience who randomly, or meticulously, sought out and slaughtered people no different than ourselves.

During the summer of 1977, the name of terror in New York City was Son of Sam, identified as David Berkowitz, who confessed to killing six people and wounding seven more. (Berkowitz later claimed he had only killed three, and that the others were killed by fellow members of a satanic cult.)  Twenty-two years after the killings, director Spike Lee revisited the summer of ‘77 in NYC in Summer of Sam, a chilling look at how the threat of terror can affect a community.

Summer of Sam is not a typical “serial-killer vs. law enforcement” film, focusing its attention more on the citizenry of New York City than on the killer himself (eerily portrayed by Michael Badalucco). Certainly, Berkowitz’s claim that he was ordered to commit the murders by his neighbor Sam’s dog would make for a fascinating psychological study, but Lee chose to focus on the psychology of those affected by the Son of Sam’s actions.

Lee zeroes in on one particular neighborhood, an Italian-American part of town where macho posturing and tight friendships make anyone different suspect. Through the course of the film, we see how the horror of the murders affects the characters. For instance, waitress Dionna (Mira Sorvino) begins wearing a blond wig since the Son of Sam prefers brunettes. When Dionna and husband Vinny (John Lequizamo) fight, she drives off and leaves him stranded in a deserted area, screaming “I hope he fucking kills you.”

Despite a large canvas covering a variety of characters, Summer of Sam  ultimately centers on the stories of Vinny and childhood friend Ritchie (Adrien Brody), who has embraced the emerging punk scene and begun working in gay porn. As Ritchie grows apart from his home community, suspicion of him grows, until his former friends beat him down. Only the news that the real Son of Sam has been caught saves Ritchie’s life.

Upon release, Summer of Sam was frequently compared with Lee’s ground-breaking Do the Right Thing; both films focus on a neighborhood in turmoil, with accusations flying and individuals lashing out in fear. Lee’s directing style in both makes clear this turmoil, with frequent changes of camera angles, sweeping and blurred shots, and the interweaving of multiple storylines being played out simultaneously. The similarity of the films’ style suggests that the threat of bigotry is a real of a threat as an actual killer.

For those alive in ‘77, the film is a reminder of the era, true to the disco, free-love and sex, cocaine-induced lifestyle embraced by so many young people. Further, though, it is a lesson in how suspicion and fear can alter and destroy relationships, even when the source of that fear is an unknown boogey-man. Those too young to remember the time can watch the film as a sociological study of how we react to the news and threat of danger.

In 1999, the boogey-man was still the thing we feared most. When he took human form, as with David Berkowitz, nothing paralyzed more. In Summer of Sam, Spike Lee showed us that the reaction to fear is sometimes more frightening than the action that caused the fear. Michael Abernethy

Aimee and Jaguar and more

cover art

Aimée and Jaguar

Director: Max Färberböck
Cast: Maria Schrader, Juliane Köhler, Johanna Wokalek, Heike Makatsch, Elisabeth Degen, Detlev Buck

(Zeitgeist Films Ltd.; US theatrical: 11 Aug 2000 (Limited release); 1999)

Aimee and Jaguar Director: Max Färberböck

When screenwriting Erica Fischer’s novel, Aimée und Jaguar for his first film, Bavarian playwright Max Färberböck must have understood the heart’s need for the romantic tagline, “Love Transcends Death”, but the brain’s need to deceive – itself as well as others—in times of madness seems to have been foremost in his thoughts, as well. Yes, this 1999 Golden Globe Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film is undoubtedly about a passionate, reckless love forged in dangerous times, and although the initial physical attraction that is needed to spark this love clearly exists, at least for the pursuer, Jaguar (Felice Schragenheim played by the alluring Maria Schrader), this is not a story of love at first sight, but rather, the affair is initiated by the cloying, intriguing play of a caged cat.

Set in Berlin during World War II, Felice’s calculating intelligence as a Jewish woman working in an underground movement, and posted directly under the nose of the Gestapo at a Nazi propaganda newspaper, is part of her appeal. She is wilder and bolder than her cluster of half-starved, beautiful friends who have thus far survived on their fraying wits and Felice’s do-what-she-dares approach to keep them in food and housing. Felice moves with dark, aggressive confidence between wartime Berlin’s many worlds; seated bravely and looking beautiful amidst Berlin’s upper class, and prowling smoothly within what’s left of the now deeply underground world of queer life in Germany.

Blond and cool to Felice’s brunette hot, annoyingly jittery to Felice’s seemingly impossible calm, the so-called Aryan ideal Lilly Wust (Aimée, played by Juliane Köhler) paces her confines with nervous, irritable, dissatisfaction. Lilly is naively – maddeningly naively—unable to intellectualize the reality of her role as a ‘breeder’ for the Aryan race, letting her children play amidst the rubble and walk past the bodies on their way to the zoo. The mother of four, unhappily married to a German soldier, she’s having an affair with a Nazi petty official. Although it’s never revealed, one senses this is not an affair of her choosing.

Felice and Lilly are an unlikely paring, by temperament as well as circumstance, but it’s that initial spark of attraction—as if the caged Jaguar’s eye was caught by something small and fleeting running outside the bars—as well as that urge to deceive the one who appears to be in power, that compels Felice to hold her wrist to Lilly’s nose and purr, “Smell”. It is not the scent of the Jew that is detected by the anti-Semite, but what seems to Lilly a deliciously expensive French perfume – an impossible and alluring fantasy. From this point, love transcends the reality, and it is beautiful. We, too, become hopeful that such a tender, desperate love could move even the coldest heart.  As reality encroaches, Lilly and Felice – now the lovers Aimée and Jaguar – collude on their mutual self-deception. This deception – this ridiculous ideal that love transcends death—is what keeps them so vibrantly alive when death is all around them, and this too, is their undoing.

Ten years on, and Felice and Lilly’s true story reverberates. Perhaps that’s the transcendence to which Färberböck alludes. Karen Zarker

cover art

Eyes Wide Shut

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack, Todd Field, Sky du Mont, Rade Šerbedžija, Vinessa Shaw, Leelee Sobieski

(Warner Brothers; US theatrical: 16 Jul 1999; 1999)

Official Site

Eyes Wide Shut Director: Stanley Kubrick

The Hollywood star status of then-married Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman raised the profile of Stanley Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut, at least in the mainstream media and among casual filmgoers. Expectations were elevated to the point where the film was almost bound to be considered, on a mass-culture level, a disappointment or failure. And I suppose it was, though its stature among cinephiles and Kubrick scholars, many of whom consider it one of his best films, is another story.

Casting such a high-profile married couple to portray an upper-class couple whose marriage is troubled by suspicions and jealousy only adds to the levels on which the film works, which is many. Based on the 1926 Arthur Schnitzler novella Traumnovelle (Dream Story), the film transposes the story from Vienna in the 1920s to NYC in the 1990s. Schnitzler’s focus on desire disrupting the everyday life of a couple is kept intact. A quintessential example of a “one night in New York City” film (in line with After Hours, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, etc), albeit extending somewhat outside the confines of one night, the trajectory of Eyes Wide Shut follows Cruise’s character, physician Bill Harford, on a journey through the city that’s as much a trip through the psychological dimensions of human sexuality and the socially agreed-upon format for containing it.

Each of his encounters that night resonates with elements of fantasy, insecurity, and fear. There is a prostitute he desires to save and a dying patient’s daughter who confesses her love to him. A gay hotel clerk hits on him. Men harass him on the street, calling him a “stupid faggot” and ridiculing his height (an example moment where the casting of Cruise, himself short and often rumored to be gay, plays into the film’s tendency for multiple readings). And, ultimately, he finds himself at an extravagant, strangely ritualistic orgy.

For much of the film we observe the plight of a man trying to react in “normal” ways to abnormal circumstances – manifestations of individual and societal fears and desires – and getting increasingly bewildered at what happens. Yet the opening music of the film, a waltz, embodies movement in circles, a suggestion that these conflicts within humans are perpetual, over time. Or that they are mundane, even.  The music throughout the film is alternately everyday and surreal, at the same time relating through classical touches the past and present. The film suggests continuity over decades and centuries, of hidden, ugly questions underneath the surface of a “normal”, “perfect” life.

Eyes Wide Shut is a rich text to study.  It is riddled with references to other parts of itself, not to mention other works of art, forming a body of questions with no one answer.  It’s also a rich film to watch, a masterpiece of cinematography and the unity of sound and vision.  Kubrick was a master of light, and Eyes Wide Shut is a stunning example of that. When I think of this film I think first of the hanging lights at the party scene in the beginning, of the dark glows and color hues cast over Cruise and Kidman in their domestic scenes, of the lights on the little Christmas trees that are omnipresent in homes throughout the film.  I think of the myriad visual details that are at store in the film waiting to be observed and considered, and of the ways this film continues to grow in dimension with each viewing. Dave Heaton

The Blair Witch Project and more

cover art

The Blair Witch Project

Director: Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez
Cast: Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, Joshua Leonard, Bob Griffin, Jim King, Sandra Sanchez, Ed Swanson, Patricia Decou, Mark Mason, Jackie Hallax

(Artisan Entertainment; US theatrical: 30 Jul 1999 (General release); 1999)

The Blair Witch Project Director: Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez

Amidst all the talk it generates, we too easily forget the intense, arresting shots of The Blair Witch Project: stark sun light streaming through trees; the unreal colors of Hi-8 on rock and water; a single, stuttering light flying through the forest at night;  the agonized face of a young filmmaker. Its images are immediate, vividly capturing the the sublime isolation of the fall woods. The mood of the camera is intensified by the story of young filmmakers who hope to document the reality of desire and death but find themselves and their technologies outmatched. With brisk editing between video color and 16mm black-and-white, the story takes us deeper into the woods and the terrors of trifling with the sacred. In the end, the woods and the Witch will win.

The Blair Witch Project galvanized our attention in 1999. Its charismatic and unusually raw cast were unlike the more polished and overproduced stars of that year. Heather Donahue, Josh Leonard and Michael Williams weren’t Hollywood pretty:  they were real. Stumbling in the rain, shivering and crying, their charisma was undeniable. Indeed, the marketing of the film played on this, suggesting this was an actual documentary. A slew of television specials, internet websites, and books would encourage this seductive idea. Such unprecedented networked marketing succeeded in making The Blair Witch a smash, but it wouldn’t have worked without the cast and the story. Heather carries the film with her icy, piercing eyes and urgent voice. Most often she holds the camera, turning it on the men, commanding, embodying the young director fighting for her film. The misery of rain and cold and frayed nerves is evident, and something more than acting produced it as those other directors, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, kept the cast guessing. Their real distress is produced by hiking, sleeping in leaky tents, being harassed with eerie noises that almost exclusively makeup the soundtrack. Yet those hallmarks of cinema vérité—improvisation, sharp argument, ambient sound and the shaky camera—work because they serve the story. The film is economical, and always the scene pushes us forward for the story and our delight in imagining the worst.

Reaction to The Blair Witch seemed to mark a generational shift. Those who grew up with video cameras were haunted by these shaky, pixilated images, while the pre-video generation was unmoved and more often dismissive. Parody was everywhere, with all the late night comedians taking a shot at Heather’s tearful, nasally raw apology. Taken out of context that shot dissolved into the ridiculous, and the film seemed overwhelmed and lost in its reception. In the film, that shot works, more powerful today as we encounter it as an organic moment in the film. It is painful and riveting to watch. We are taken into a totally vulnerable moment by an actress who is brave enough to abandon vanity.

Looking back to 1999, it is hard to imagine a film that more accurately glimpsed what would ironically become the world of millennial television. At first, The Blair Witch Project seemed to signal a giddy moment of hope that filmmaking would realize the Zoetrope dream of personal films made for less that a million dollars, but such inexpensive films have not captured our imagination like The Blair Witch. Instead, it conjured exploitative small screen entertainment, and ever since the endlessly rolling videotape has subjected us to not so ordinary people fighting among themselves for far more dubious projects:  The trouble, of course,  is that these poorly conceived productions lack both compelling setting and story, leaving their directed-improvisations adrift. Alas, even the fates of The Blair Witch stars are one with an emerging television form, as none of them quit leaped to the Hollywood fame that seemed so inevitable. Its actors have found homes either fully behind the camera or as television series regulars.

But time is kind to this film, and as the talk, the marketing, the parody fades away, its beautiful, disturbing images are free to haunt us for years to come. David Banash

cover art

The Boondock Saints

Director: Troy Duffy
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Sean Patrick Flanery, Norman Reedus, David Della Rocco, Billy Connolly

(Indican Pictures; US theatrical: 4 Aug 1999; 1999)

Official Site

The Boondock Saints Director: Troy Duffy

Tony Montana and Mark Brian Smith’s Overnight might not quite rank with Burden of Dreams, but it does serve as a vital document about the creation of Troy Duffy’s The Boondock Saints, one of the most beguiling cult video hits of all time. There are many backhanded superlatives one could use to frame the audacious film, but none could match the language Duffy uses throughout the making-of documentary to secure his status as a born legend. None could believe more strongly in the power of Duffy than the man himself. Overnight doesn’t fully explain how the self-described lout originally secured the rare opportunity to write, direct, and score his debut script with a healthy late 1990s Miramax budget, but Montana and Smith painstakingly follow the way in which Duffy single-handedly sets a new high bar for hubris.

Total cinematic self-immolation is rare in an industry where most everyone is terrified to burn a bridge or two. But Troy Duffy, like Rod Blagojevich in recent months, possesses a confidence that surpasses common sense and not one trace of shame. To review the troubled production history of The Boondock Saints is to predict only one possible conclusion—one of frustrated potential, wasted opportunity, and guaranteed obscurity. And yet the film has become one of the most popular home videos of the decade, long since recouping its entire production budget (and then some) and gaining a worldwide fan base. Perhaps as Duffy suggests in Overnight, he does have a few things figured out.

Riding the scuzz film wave that was spawned by the early 1990s crime film trend and crested (or bottomed out, depending on one’s perspective) with films such as Truth or Consequences, N.M. and 2 Days in the Valley, Duffy’s directorial debut brings to mind David Mamet’s comparison of filmmakers to gangsters. However, Duffy and his film take this analogy to the extreme. The plot of The Boondock Saints concerns two vigilante brothers (played by Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus) who claim to be on a mission from God as they brutally dispatch cartoonish Boston-area mafia figures. A flamboyant FBI agent (Willem Dafoe) tracks the brothers and their crimes. The entire film is an extended riff on the combined rites of religion and violence, juxtaposed so efficiently in The Godfather and aped ever since.

Duffy says he wrote the script out of frustration with a culture indifferent to evil. While nothing within the script or its execution is especially outstanding, the subconscious world of the film is extraordinary as it aggressively engages in the double fantasy of auteurism and gangsterism. These two drives are already culturally intertwined, but Duffy’s script brazenly flexes the connection. He taps into a reflexive staginess as he unapologetically works out his own aspirations both within the film and through the film. As a result, what The Boondock Saints offers in spades is a raw supertext about the experience of making and watching a movie. Operatic violence is paired with a literal opera soundtrack. As Agent Smecker, Dafoe “blocks” the crime scenes and becomes the surrogate director. Over and over, characters respond to action and dialogue with commentary that refers to the coolness of the action and dialogue. In doing so, these characters form an audience for the very movie they’re acting out. The actors are to be commended for attempting double or triple duty as avatars in Duffy’s film fantasy camp.

In the end, ardent fans respond most to the forceful determination that surrounds the work, and Duffy’s overnight success would seem to justify such naked ambition. He might have gone down in a blaze of glory and sabotaged his standing in the industry, but to die is gain for a director/gangster intent on becoming a legend. One wonders if Boondock Saints II:  All Saints Day, currently in post-production, will reflect the defeat Duffy faced in being unceremoniously dismissed from Hollywood or the validation he gained by creating a film that would not die, despite the power structure’s attempt to bury it. Ten years later, The Boondock Saints is still not high art, but it is endlessly fascinating as a piece of cinematic wish fulfillment that continues to feed the fantasies of its viewers. Thomas Britt

Published at: