There is more to this world than bourgeois life and its authorities—priests, police officers, soldiers, psychiatrists, attorneys—can ever know. This is the evocatively open-ended theme Peter Weir explored in his career-making films, Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave, and to which he has fruitfully at last returned after plodding through the Hollywood shallows of Dead Poets Society and Green Card. No one will have any trouble identifying Weir’s new Fearless as a Hollywood product—its weakest moments are glib and formulaic—but it’s more than just the director’s best film in years. Genuinely unsettling, this is a rare mainstream movie with a distinctive vision.
That vision comes up fast, as the film roars straight from airplane noise and the title, skipping the credit sequence, to a disorienting shot of a man walking through a burning cornfield, holding a baby and leading a boy. The three are survivors of a plane crash, the devastation of which Weir establishes by yanking the camera skyward for a crane shot that suddenly shifts the viewpoint from human and confusingly incomplete to celestial and total. It’s a strategy the director repeats elsewhere in the film, contrasting the limits of human knowledge with the omniscience of the director’s chair.
Such contrasts are not merely a game, for the premise of the script (written by Rafael Yglesias from his own novel) is that the man in the cornfield, Max Klein (Jeff Bridges), has become godlike. Formerly a nervous flier, Klein comes out of the crash physically unhurt and psychologically transformed. After guiding some people from the wreckage, he simply leaves the scene, showers, and looks up a friend. They go to a pancake restaurant, and he eats strawberries, to which she notes he’s deathly allergic. “I passed all that,” he says.
Having passed “all that,” Max becomes a hero, a savant, and a pain in the ass, especially to the family who can’t understand his new frame of mind, which is alternately blissful and messianic. A martyr who failed to die for the sins of his fellow passengers—including his partner and best friend, who was decapitated—the Volvo-driving Max now feels invulnerable. “So what are you telling me, there’s no God, but there’s you?” snaps his exasperated wife Laura (Isabella Rossellini).
Max’s alienation from his family is underscored by his new relationship with Carla (Rosie Perez), whose infant son died in the crash. The two are introduced by Dr. Perlman (John Turturro), the psychiatrist hired by the airline to work with the wreck’s post-traumatic-stress victims, and develop a bond that threatens Laura. (Her prickly reception of Carla when she comes to the house one day is an exhilarating example of the film’s disregard for Hollywood’s concern for likability.) Ultimately, Max stages his most reckless stunt, risking both their lives to prove to Carla that her baby’s death was not her fault; meanwhile, Weir’s flashbacks gradually reveal that Max’s survival was not so simple, after all.
Inevitably, there are problems with Fearless. Any film that sets out to confront the divine must eventually back off, and Weir’s never been all that good at endings anyway. (The exception is The Last Wave, which seems to conclude with the destruction of the world, but that was only because the director ran out of money and couldn’t shoot his intended finale.) Some of this is overly slick or at least overly familiar: The saintly Max is an architect, virtually the only white-collar profession not held suspect in these sorts of Hollywood scenarios, and is occasionally too much the zany, life-affirming wild man (cf. Mr. Jones), notably in a scene where he leads Carla to a shopping mall to buy “presents for the dead.”
Still, the film is thematically provocative, visually thrilling, and as admirably unsolemn as Laura, a ballet teacher who gets her revenge on Perlman by making him serve as a tree for little girls in tights to flutter around. Weir skillfully weaves comedy into the film’s dense fabric, with characters like Perlman and with Tom Hulce as the gleefully crass attorney handling Max’s suit against the airline (“I know, I’m terrible,” he giggles after working out the potential financial rewards of catastrophe). There’s also visual wit and grace: A surfer balances tenuously on a video screen as the plane tilts violently, Laura discovers that Max has been sketching variations on a Bosch work that parallels his experience of leading crash survivors toward the light.
This mix of earthly and ethereal tilts toward the latter in Maurice Jarre’s score, which is supplemented by snippets from best-selling musical mystics: The guitar riff from U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” fuels one scene, while the credits finally roll to the tune of Henryk Gorecki’s best-selling Symphony Number 3. The spiritual yearning of such music is part of what makes Fearless distinctive, but so is its scope, humor, and intelligence. It can’t resolve it all, but unlike most Hollywood films, it has a lot on its mind.
A historical costume epic more in the spirit of Hollywood (or at least an English-language international coproduction) than of other Fifth Generation Chinese films (including director Chen Kaige’s own), Farewell My Concubine builds to the same historical climax as does M. Butterfly: the Cultural Revolution. Adapted from a tersely written but somewhat corny Hong Kong best seller by novelist and screenwriter Lillian Lee by Lee herself and Lu Wei, the film is no cultural revolution. The relative commercial clout of the austere (if vividly hued) work of Zhang Yimou is far more impressive than any possible breakthrough by this Palm d’Or winner.
Concubine brings together elements of the mainland Chinese, Hong Kong, and Taiwanese cinema, much as it pairs Hong Kong actor Leslie Cheung (who’s appeared in John Woo and Tsui Hark movies) with mainlander Zhang Fengyi. The former plays Cheng Dieyi, an actor who specializes in female roles, while the latter is Duan Xiaolou, the longtime friend who plays athletic, military parts. The two frequently perform Farewell My Concubine together, and the plot of the classic Chinese opera—the downfall of a warrior king and his concubine—roughly parallels their own fate.
The two meet as boys, whenDieyi’s mother brings her son (then known as Douzi) to a Peking Opera school. Slender, shy, and the son of a prostitute, Douzi is taunted by the other students, but defended by the older, stronger Shitou, later to adapt the stage name Duan Xiaolou. The other students are not the principal threat to Douzi, though. When the teacher refuses to take the child because he has a sixth finger on one of his hands, his mother simply hacks the digit off. Later, the regular beatings administered to all the students by their instructor are supplemented: When Douzi blows an important line—calling himself a boy instead of a girl—his mouth is scraped with a metal pipe, leaving it bloody. (The demanding and sometimes brutal training of such schools produced some contemporary Chinese stars, including Butterfly‘s John Lone.)
As the two boys become men and become stars together, Dieyi’s love for his protector becomes sexual. He accepts that it will be unrequited as long as he has no visible rival. But when Xiaolou decides to marry beautiful prostitute Juxian (Zhang Yimou regular Gong Li), Dieyi’s frustration becomes rage. He seeks refuge in opium and an affair with a wealthy patron, and spends much of the rest of the tale trying to get rid of Juxian, who has a few ideas of her own about how to get rid of him.
In these plots, the two have powerful, if difficult to control, allies. First the invading Japanese and then the triumphant Communists disrupt the opera and the lives of its performers. Both actors end up in jail at different times, and win freedom not by appeals to justice but through performing for important fans. They survive even the indignities of the Cultural Revolution—when traditional costumes and scenery are publicly burned and prostitutes, homosexuals, opera performers, and opium users are all condemned—to meet again as old men.
More satisfying pictorially than psychologically, Concubine establishes the rush and roar of history and the director’s way with light and color. Generally fast-moving despite its three-hour length, the film seems both broad and shallow. It’s swept along by great events, but its own nature isn’t great, merely big.
As subcultures move out of the shadows, they leave certain institutions behind. One such is Maud’s, a San Francisco lesbian bar that closed in 1989 after a 23-year run. It was once “better than home,” recounts one woman, but in the years leading to its demise the Haight-Ashbury joint was ignored by younger lesbians and visited less frequently by older ones, many of whom had begun to limit their drinking.
Paris Poirier’s documentary uses Maud’s to chart 23 years in the history of San Francisco’s lesbian community, encompassing everything from Stonewall and Harvey Milk’s murder to historical footnotes: The way to find the local lesbian bar used to be to follow the crowds after women’s softball games, one woman explains, and Maud’s had male bartenders when it opened in 1966, because it was then illegal for women to pour drinks in California commercial establishments.
This covers much of the same territory as did Forbidden Love, and teeters on the same dilemma: It has to portray the closeted years as both the good old and the bad old days. Ideologically, that may be a stretch, but such paradoxes are frequently well-conveyed by individual reminiscences, and (as in Love) the best thing here is the first-person commentary by various women who remember the recent dark ages with humor and affection.