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As with any great myth, the one about Quentin Tarantino, big overgrown kid in love with the movies, is self-perpetuating. We know the story’s salient points—dropped out, video store, Reservoir Dogs—letting lacunae gape here and there, as all legends have their little coincidences and shrouded moments. Like, what happened between making peanuts at the video store and granting Keitel an audition?
But the Tarantino “origin myth” is being carried on by the Tarantino “deed myth,” one that does not obey the usual parameters of artistic—or even entertainment—standards. It doesn’t matter if he makes good movies (for the record, I think he can); the point is that he makes cool movies. There’s even a whole book about it, with the appropriately fairy-tale title Quentin Tarantino and the Cinema of Cool. That may go down in semiotics history as a record—the guy’s made two movies. Talk about your authorless text.
We the audience and we the critics, both camps being filled with gullible and easily led sorts, allow convenient holes to appear in the legend even as we’re scribbling it down. So when squealing reports on the “ear-slicing scene” in Reservoir Dogs began to circulate, no one felt like pointing out that it consisted of the thug’s menacing razor dance, the cameraman’s long cuts away to the warehouse ramp, and finally the cop’s pressing his hand to the side of his head. This was the scene that burst the envelope into confetti, the unbridled depiction of violence that would change what we watch, and what filmmakers feel at liberty to show on-screen?
Taking the next step without noticing that they never took the first one, directors right and left are now co-opting an extremely casual definition of the supposed Tarantino ethos, and the results, for all their slickness and brand-name packaging, are so shallow, gruesome, and uncontextualized as to verge on being outsider art. To take just one recent example, writer-director Steven Baigelman, not a terribly imaginative man, re-created his own ear scene with all the languor and twice the gore in his greasy, grimy Feeling Minnesota.
If the empty violence of Pulp Fiction was part of a pose—OK, it was the pose—and the violence of the otherwise empty Dogs was real, horrifying, even cautionary, a year after Pulp Fiction won all those undeserved awards, a host of directors have cropped up, all of whom have less style, less love for the art form, and less understanding of the difference between depicting moral emptiness and succumbing to it.
I am trying to avoid introducing the subject at hand, 2 Days in the Valley, TV-movie director-screenwriter John Herzfeld’s first big-screen project. Perhaps by invoking the title, like a whispered password or curse, innocent readers may be transported into theaters where this excrescence is on tap. 2 Days is not incompetent—most of the acting is blue-chip-plus, notably Paul Mazursky giving a fascinating but almost motionless performance as a washed-up director literally stunned by life, and the Dresden-china-featured Glenne Headly as the put-upon assistant to a wealthy art pig (Greg Cruttwell, whose face is everything offensive about the English). There are 11 strong lead characters and some nifty cameos, quirky settings, and some of the relationships, as they develop, are quite interesting. For large stretches this appears to be a neat little movie about lost dreams in the weird, lost San Fernando Valley. In between those stretches, it is repellent beyond imagining.
The press release makes mournful noises about characters’ “redemption,” but that’s just code for the kind of movie where people who plan to kill themselves end up killing others instead, and a meek woman meets the one man who appreciates her. That doesn’t stop him, of course, from ordering her around—this script is not what you might call hyper-self-aware. While violence can be funny, it isn’t intrinsically funny, and the violence here is at once extremely nasty and played for laughs; when women are involved, it is also skin-crawlingly slow. The sense that someone just out of camera range is enjoying this mightily is unmistakable.
This undercurrent of titillation runs through the whole enterprise. When the film thinks it’s being sweet, as when vice cop Eric Stoltz declines to run in a lovely young Vietnamese masseuse, we’re asked to cheer the cop’s generosity while ogling the girl. But in the film’s bloodier moments the sexual pitch reaches dog-whistle heights. When two young women (Teri Hatcher and Charlize Theron) get in a foxy cat fight in a hotel room, they’re filmed liked animals in a nature documentary, or an old-time freak show. Their looks (one dark, one light), their characters (one serious athlete, one gun moll), their clothes (teeny bike shorts and top, blinding white sausage-skin cat-suit and heels) telegraph not only a pleasing contrast with each other, but their respective value as human beings in this landscape of mortality, in which Herzfeld plays a childish game of God, freeing doomed good guys and condemning to death those he thinks deserve a hot-lead gelcap. The girls’ punishment is finely calibrated, too—one’s a bitch but he lets her live; the other dies very slowly and picturesquely, the spreading crimson stain played for maximum artistic effect.
None of this is Quentin Tarantino’s fault. Herzfeld’s offenses against man and cinema are his own. But by tracing the recent history of violence in the movies and, more importantly, the shadow history of images we believe were violent, 2 Days in the Valley seems less inexplicable, perhaps less distressing. Its cheapness, its sniggering humor, its totally dehumanized view of the characters, its pleasure at the sight of a beautiful woman and the subsequent sight of her death (or proximity to death—Hatcher spends much of the movie covered in her ex-husband’s blood) are more depressing than offensive. But explaining how we got here doesn’t help when you’re faced with this wretched garbage and the question you really want answered is: Why am I watching this?
They’re still making movies like Extreme Measures, which is pretty much all anyone can say about it. This is a well-executed example of the genre—innocent young man stumbles onto a dangerous project and must expose it before it destroys him—but the genre itself is so threadbare and predictable that its very essence is refuted by the quality of its execution. The ending is a sure thing from the beginning, the thrills, while well-done, are out of the textbook, and the evil plot, when revealed, is kind of ordinary.
Hugh Grant plays hotshot trauma-ward doctor Guy Luthan, who treats a very strange patient, a homeless man suffering from a variety of scary and contradictory symptoms that soon kill him. The man wears nothing but a blank hospital bracelet, and before he dies utters enough cryptic phrases to get the good doctor in over his head with crooked FBI agents, disappearing homeless folk, and a neurosurgeon of legendary status (Gene Hackman), and even the collusion of some people at his very own hospital. But who?
Two hours of Grant acting the perplexed toff does wear one down—he registers most emotions by squinching up his brows and going ever so slightly agape, double-taking subtly and/or raking back his hair. He spends the entire climactic scene with a thick rivulet of blood running from one nostril, mouth slightly agape, etc., and you really wouldn’t notice the difference if he went out on the street like that.
Michael Apted directs smoothly; it all looks very nice, especially a long scramble into and through the subway tunnels beneath New York City and a tense chase over the rails, with guns and oncoming trains providing the obstacles. Sarah Jessica Parker is cast in her usual semi-useless not-quite-starring role as a nurse friendly (but that’s all) with Grant, a hospital administrator tells him to stay out of it so many times that Dr. Guy suspects he’s in on it, and a setup designed to scare him off the trail actually renders him free to pursue it full-time and with full, nothing-to-lose vigor.
But there’s no lightness, no laughs (oh, one: Grant bemusedly to a sinister morgue medical examiner, “You’re quite a creepy fellow, aren’t you?”), not many surprises and, for all of Dr. Guy’s reverence for humankind, not a lot of love. There isn’t even a very high malevolence factor for a movie that hangs out in the morgue; Lars Von Trier’s The Kingdom depicts the scariest vision of medicine ever committed to film, and its hospital wasn’t killing anyone.
In fact, the trailer for Extreme Measures sums up the rest of the story rather nicely. The bonus of sitting through that on your way to a better movie means you won’t have to listen to girls in the bathroom afterward sighing about Hugh Grant’s “Oxfordian intelligence.” That’s what they say when they’re just marginally smart enough to know better than to admit they think the accent is cute.CP