Briefly, there was some concern that Quentin Tarantino would never get around to making another movie. After three weeks that have brought Feeling Minnesota, 2 Days in the Valley, Bound, and Curdled, however, it no longer seems to matter. Oh sure, these college-educated splatter flicks are all worse than the two films Tarantino actually directed, but they’re no more annoying than the ones he’s merely scripted, acted in, or produced. In fact, he executive produced one of them.
That one is not Bound, which features most of the usual Tarantino tics, including dumb thugs, bungled heists, and bloody messes. The small joke being played by the writing and directing Wachowski Brothers is to have these macho proceedings stormed by two sharp, cool lesbians, who fall for each other and decide to grab the money on what could be called their first date. Of course, a film that features two tough, beautiful lesbians is not exactly removed from the world of heterosexual-male fantasy.
Corky (Gina Gershon) is an ex-con who takes a job redoing an apartment in a Chicago building owned by a gangster. The other tenants include money-launderer Ceasar (Joe Pantoliano) and his moll, breathy-voiced Violet (Jennifer Tilly), a lesbian who has sex with men but only—as she explains to Corky—as “work.” Violet informs Corky that Ceasar is in temporary custody of $2 million that was skimmed by a now-deceased mob flunky. (The cash is, of course, all bloody.) “For me,” says Corky, “stealing is a lot like sex,” which suits Larry and Andy Wachowski just fine.
The rest of the scenario can be anticipated, although not exactly. The Wachowskis, making their directorial debut after writing Assassins and some Marvel comic books, are crazy for plot twists, so Bound serves a feast of reversals and surprises—although most of them aren’t all that surprising. The brothers also relish ostentatious camera moves and other gleefully artificial devices. The camera zooms out of a gun barrel and later sweeps along a phone cord; when Ceasar is nervous, his gulp and heartbeat are superamplified. Shot by Bill Pope in a shadowy full-color that emulates black-and-white, this is film that aspires to the limited line and shape of woodcut prints.
Such self-imposed limitations make for stylish images, and perhaps sidestepped an NC-17 rating for the shadowy (but not exactly enigmatic) sex scenes. Alas, the characterizations are equally circumscribed. Bound apparently means to generate some tension through the possibility of double-crosses and shifting alliances, but the action is so mechanical that it will probably occur to few viewers that Corky, Violet, and Ceasar are supposed to be human beings with some semblance of free will. This also undermines the pleasure that might be provided by the narrative’s spirals; since the central characters are robotic, their reactions to these contrivances don’t make them—or the story—seem any more real. Psychologically, Corky, Violet, and Ceasar are no more interesting than the $2 million.
Though the Wachowskis’ film would have looked a bit fresher a few years ago, it’s not clever enough to have created this subgenre. If Bound had come first, it would have not engendered Reservoir Dogs. But Reservoir Dogs came first, which means there will probably be a lot more Bounds. Maybe even next week.
Filmgoers who do cry over spilt milk should know that Curdled is about blood—big buckets of congealed plasma and greasy, grimy socialite guts. This is a comedy as black as the dried blood heroine Gabriela (Angela Jones) scrubs off linoleum tiles, an adolescent boys’ gross-out joke that waits about an hour too long to deliver the punch line.
Though Curdled is short by contemporary Hollywood standards, it comes as no surprise to discover that it was originally much shorter. Made in 1991 by two Florida State University students, writer/director Reb Braddock and writer/producer John Maass, the original 30-minute film was entered in an Italian film festival that also featured Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino saw the film there and encouraged the filmmakers to expand it to feature length. He even cast the short’s star in his Pulp Fiction, as the cabbie who drives Bruce Willis. To repay their debt, Braddock and Maass feature stills of Tarantino and George Clooney in their From Dusk to Dawn roles on the true-crime TV show, Miami D.O.A., that Gabriela avidly watches.
This is all very cozy, but Curdled isn’t. In fact, it’s repulsive, a callow exercise in serial-killer chic and a callous glorification of cutting up women and watching them bleed to death. (Most of the latter happens off-screen, although the film flaunts the sanguinary aftermath.) Slicing, dicing, and decapitating wealthy middle-aged women is the obsession of Miami’s newly notorious Blue Blood Killer (William Baldwin, hyping the vaunted Baldwin creepiness for all it’s worth), which is why Gabriela is obsessed with him. She’s so fascinated, in fact, that she quits her job at a local bakery to go to work for Post-Forensic Cleaning Service, a fictionalized version of the real-life business of sanitizing bloody crime scenes. Though her co-worker Elena (Mel Gorham) doesn’t share Gabriela’s enthusiasm, the new cleaner desperately hopes to be assigned a Blue Blood crime site. Her wish comes true, of course—and more. She gets to dance with Death himself, in one of those scenes that is either symbolic of Latin culture’s affinity with mortality or just another gambit to stall the obvious punch line.
Curdled has its self-consciously cute touches, as well as some good advice, delivered to Gabriela by her new boss: “In this business, you have to draw a line. You’re about to step over it.” Braddock and Maass step over it gleefully, because to them the film isn’t about torture and murder at all. Theirs is a direct-to-video aesthetic that considers everything camp, no matter how brutal or misogynist. (Like The Silence of the Lambs, this movie poses as feminist by letting a woman land the final blow.) Those with blood rather than celluloid in their veins may not appreciate the joke, however. The movie’s advertising tag line is “And you thought your job sucked”—and I’m not sure I ever did as deeply as when watching this smarmy flop.
These days, the only things that are “natural” are upscale consumer products; everything else is artificial, simulated, cyber, mediated—or whatever other consumer or academic term you prefer. This notion, exhaustively expounded by such French connoisseurs of the counterfeit as Guy Debord, Jean Baudrillard, and Alain Robbe-Grillet, is still relevant but not exactly startling. If there’s anyone who has something fresh to say about this phenomenon, Synthetic Pleasures director Iara Lee didn’t find him.
Lee’s semidocumentary plays it several ways, simultaneously documenting and celebrating (and occasionally deploring) the current interests in computer-generated images, simulated environments, video games, techno music, piercings, plastic surgery, sex-change operations, cryogenics, robots, Prozac, ecstasy, smart drinks, cyberporn, and other things no God-fearing American would have considered a few generations ago. (Want to know why sex led the home-computer revolution? See if you find anything else here that’s as amusing as cyberspanking.) These things are supposed to have something in common, but Lee doesn’t really know what. Or if she does, she isn’t telling.
Pleasures is periodically graced by the appearance of such theoreticians as Timothy Leary, R.U. Sirius, John Barlow, Lisa Palac, and former Doobie Boys guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, most of whom are enthusiastic about a future in which technology will enable them to do something or other they can’t now. These people don’t have very interesting things to say, however, and commentators who have been more provocative on these subjects either weren’t invited or declined to participate. The critique is generally superficial, as when the voice-over argues that Japan’s indoor golf, swimming, skiing, and fishing spots reflect the desire of that country’s inhabitants to “filter all the hazards of the experience.” (More likely it’s because Japan is a heavily urbanized nation whose workers’ very limited vacation time is usually commandeered by family obligations.) Watching the shallow Japan sequences, I couldn’t help thinking of Chris Marker’s San Soleil, a freewheeling cinematic essay that investigates Japan’s cultural oddities without being merely glib or smug.
If the film’s analysis is bland, its mode is not exclusively analytical. In fact, Pleasures at first seems to be surfing randomly through the world of contemporary representations, from Sim City to Las Vegas to Japan, while an ambient-techno score shimmers ephemerally. As an example of post-Cartesian thought- and image-flow, the film is not as compelling as the best of Jean-Luc Godard, Derek Jarman, or MTV. Still, it’s better at showing than thinking. Perhaps that’s another argument for books over VDTs—or maybe it just means those smart drinks don’t really work.CP