Who’s your favorite Spice Girl? This brief (and to most people annoying) quiz is a fascinating look into the soul of the answerer, the first reliable indicator of the psychological state of the askee since the Rorschach test. But it’s even more fun to administer, because people who fancy themselves smart and/or bohemian sputter impotently for a while before replying. Then they all answer, “Sporty,” which is even funnier.
The plot of the first and oh-God-please only Spice Girls movie hinges on the advent of S.G. backlash, but nowadays a phenomenon such as this one comes with its own built-in backlash; not everyone is going to tolerate this sort of thing lying down. But after a while, it just seems churlish not to give in to Spicemania. It’s hard not to love the idea of the Spice Girls without having to actually contemplate the glossy mugs of Baby, Scary, Posh, Ginger, and Sporty at any lengthan enterprise that makes fondness for them more a chore than a kicky conceptual backlash-against-the-backlash.
The good-natured Spiceworld, like the good-natured album of the same name, gives you lots of les girls in little bits, so even though you’re being steeped in Spice like mulling wine, the Pavlov’s dog part of you keeps wishing they’d bring Baby back so you could get a really good look at her adorable “bedroom” in the massive Spice Bus. If the camera just slowed down you’d be able to get the basic layout of the sequinny red thing pasted on Ginger and figure out why she appears to have feathers sprouting from her behind.
But if too much Spice Girls is not enough, 105 minutes of Spiceworld is far too much, because for all the lighthearted romping and image-bolstering disguised as image-mocking, the movie that its stars wanted to be “A Hard Day’s Night crossed with Spi¬nal Tap” is more like an extended Monkees episode with liberal doses of unquestioning vanity. Director Bob Spiers (of Absolutely Fabulous fame) does a workmanlike job with all the curlicued wackiness, but even he can’t keep the film’s four plot lines reined in and performing. In descending order of silliness: The girls have a big gig on Saturdaya live performance at the Albert Hall; their forgotten friend, Nicola, is pregnant, and they feel guilty about having abandoned her to swollen ankles and frumpy dresses while they pursued fame on Top of the Pops; an evil tabloid magnate sends a ninja celebrity photographer to get dirt on the Girls; and a pair of Hollywood writers pitch ideas for a Spice Girls movie. Oh yeah, and they’re being filmed by a dweeby documentary crew. Five plot lines.
As winning as the Spice Girls are, they’re such a perfect conceptual entity that their reality is disappointingly vacuous. They only have one dance move, where they each point an arm dramatically in one direction and then sweep it to the other side. The script wants to make them human, but it’s distressing to read in the (rather too artsy) Official Book of the Movie how screenwriter Kim Fuller “found hooks” for each of his five principalsin other words, invented personalities for them. The dialogue reflects this scarily naive offhandedness; when Nicola (Naoko Mori) first appears, the girls ask after “Trevor.” “Trevor’s gone,” she answers tonelessly. “He’s left me.” She rolls her eyes. Girl power, indeed.
It should be a given that in a world in which OK Cola bombed for being too transparent, an entity like the Spice Girls could send itself up left and right without any loss to the girls’ kiddie audience, while earning some respect from their postmodernist elders. There are a few moments that hint at such delicacies. The girls pose for a phony photo shoot in a dizzying array of fantasy personae: Elvis, Marilyn, Danny and Sandy from Grease, ’60s rock stars. Baby does a very creditable Twiggy. Then they dress up as each other, a sequence edited so deliriously you hardly have time to figure out who is masquerading as whom. As a sendup of their manufactured images, it’s pretty cute, but it also works on the lizard-brain level, as a meaningless mishmash romping across one’s field of vision.
If it can’t be any cleverer, Spice Word should have at least more comic oomph, or more saucy vigor, or sport a more British feel (it’s set in today’s swinging London), but with all those plots babbling at once, there’s no room for actual fun. Instead, it has references to the Teletubbies and English sweets, a boat chase on the Thames, and great bit players in bit parts, such as Hugh Laurie as Poirot in one of the Monkeeslike fantasy segments, Jennifer Saunders as a horrific socialite, Elvis Costello as a bartender, Jools Holland as a record producer, Barry Humphries as the tabloid editor, and Meat Loaf as their bus driver. (Deck-stack much?) The sharpest casting coup is that of Roger Moore as a miniature-pig-stroking honcho of evil straight out of one of his own Bond films. His chillingly industrial fireplace alone outpowers Austin Powers.
For all the script’s interest in the nature of fame, Spiceworld understandably doesn’t want to turn that rock completely overnot in sunlight, anyway. Instead, it gives the girls distractingly cute bits of businesswhen Nicola is ready to pop, they don kitchen gloves and apronswhile pretending that they’re bickering and restless. But one comic set piece indicates that Spiers could have gotten away with being more audacious. Stephen Fry is impeccable as a fantasy judge who condemns the astonished but skeptical Girls for releasing a single “less kickin’ than those previous.” After the sentence, he turns down the sides of his mouth and sneers, “Bring in Howtie and the Blowfish.”
At the heart of Wim Wenders’ Lisbon Story is a complex and fascinating debate about the form and function of art in the modern world. Do history and the passage of time oppress the artistic process and skew the result? Or is the possibility of a “pure” way of seeing, unfettered by what came before, an aspect of cinema’s nature?
But Wenders hasn’t actually made a film about this debate; he has posited two characters on either side of the question and allowed them to ignore each other for the bulk of the film, bringing them together at the very end so that one can convince the other of his (and Wenders’) opinion. In between, Lisbon Story follows its hero in his desultory wanderings through the Portuguese city and his brief, unsatisfying, and unfocused encounters with a few of its inhabitants. This is not filmed with any particular love for the city, and there is neither humor nor beauty nor verve in the human interactions. There is no subtext, no subtlety, no feel for rhythm, nor an eye for eccentricity.
Sound engineer Phillip Winter (Rüdiger Vogler) receives a postcard from his friend “Fritz,” Friedrich Monroe (Wenders staple Patrick Bauchau), who’s holed up somewhere in Lisbon making a naive silent observational film of the city’s life and pleasures. But Fritz is trapped by his own premise and needs his friend’s sound expertise to bring it to life. After many setbacks and breakdowns on the roadmore depressing than comicPhillip arrives at Fritz’s spacious old house, only to find the film abandoned and the auteur absent.
Phillip decides to finish the film himself, so he takes to the streets with his sound equipment. Along the way he meets the cherubic local children, who also knew Fritz and who keep a video camera trained on the visitor, and a couple of incidental characters, none particularly interesting; the experiences add up to nothing. After being warned about a part of town rife with “gangsters,” he runs into a slick individual who offers to produce the elusive Fritz for a large fee, which Phillip foolishly pays. He gets a shave but looks no different. He has his shoe shined, and also the cast that encases his other leg. He asks an old man (whose image has appeared in Fritz’s footage) where the filmmaker is, so the man takes him to his house and tells him a sad story.
Phillip also meets a local musical group whose modest female singer he falls for. Wenders’ sense of the city, and the emotional texture of Lisbon Story, are based on the sounds of this group, Madredeus. The band’s self-righteous new-age mewlings punctuate the film, and Vogler’s job is to look haggard and rapt while Teresa Salgueiro fills the room with her passionless voice. The music is crafted but cold and shallow, an apt expression of this movie’s soul.
Finally, Phillip finds his friend, who has been spying on him with the help of a local street kid, but Fritz has moved on, in a fit of cynicism, to video. The two argue a bit, but Phillip manages to convince Fritz that even if 100 years of film history inevitably inform not only what the audience experiences but what the filmmaker must see, film is still a vigorous and worthy art form, one that owes nothing to the so-called technological innovation of video. But Phillip’s argument is only a pallid echo of a set-piece speech by the filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira, which makes the case not only for film’s function as the evidence of the moment, but for truth, doubt, memory, illusion, man, and God.
At the end, Fritz is confined in a tiny blue car with no wheels, listening to his friend urging him to grab the camera once again, which of course he does. (They finish the film together in a sequence run over the closing credits that has more life and humor than anything that has come before.)
But it’s too late for us. After Oliveira’s fine speech, the fictional structure of the same argument collapses on itself. Lisbon Story is unfortunately wan and superficial. If Wenders really felt that the future of film was rich, multihued, and wide open, he ought to have made a better movie about it.CP