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Ceausescu is dead, but he’s omnipresent in The Conjugal Bed, Mircea Daneliuc’s feral comedy about the state of Romania today. Indeed, this bleakly absurd film is full of shadows of the deposed dictator; it even takes as a motif the helicopter that spirited him away during his overthrow, which is evoked by copters, rotors, and even the pinwheels sold on the street by a former secret policeman.
Romania “is the craziest place in the world,” the writer/director claims, and certainly Bed has a berserk energy that helps compensate for its inside jokes and stumbling narrative. Its queasy scenario turns on sex and procreation, loaded issues everywhere but especially in Romania, which under Ceausescu was the most militant “pro-life” country in the world. Now abortions are legal, and Vasile (Gheorghe Dinica) wants his haggard wife Carolina (Coca Bloos) to have one; they don’t have the cash to pay for it, but it would be cheaper in the long run than feeding another child.
Vasile runs a shabby movie theater where Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kiefer Sutherland films are drawing diminishing crowds; money is an obsession both for him and for attractive ticket-taker Stela (Lia Bugnar), with whom he has regular desktop assignations. (During one, she inspires herself to orgasm by gazing at a poster of the Terminator star.) At the urging of her husband, Stela quits her job for the more lucrative profession of “business company”—prostitution for the hard-currency crowd.
Vasile, meanwhile, finds that his copy of one of Ceausescu’s books—ubiquitous at one time, but rare since the revolution—has significant resale value; it seems that some people feel the book can be decoded to reveal the numbers of the dead dictator’s Swiss bank accounts. (In Daneliuc’s Bucharest, American dollars and Swiss banks rival sex as the principal obsessions.) After failing to force a miscarriage, Vasile and Carolina seem reconciled to another baby; he wants it to be born in Belgium, so that the family can apply for citizenship, while she prefers that they simply sell the kid to wealthy Westerners.
Everything is risky in destabilized Romania, but it’s not clear what will get Vasile in the most trouble: absconding with money he finds in his desk drawer, running a theater where a man hangs himself, renting the theater to the Party of Original Democracy (that is, the renamed Commies), or his obsession with now-lycra-clad Stela. Ultimately, he’s arrested and sent to an asylum, only to be released and to return home, where he finds that Carolina has rented the eponymous bed to a crew making a porno film for a French audience. (The female lead, naturally, is Stela.)
Vasile’s conduct toward his wife—and himself—only becomes more horrific after his release. “I said it was going to be awful,” he tells the audience in one of several moments where he addresses the camera directly. In a grimly ironic epilogue set in 2006, the couple’s 14-year-old son, who was ultimately carried to term, encounters Stela, still whoring in still-desolate Bucharest. Life goes on, but it doesn’t get any better—andDaneliuc’s characters don’t get any more sympathetic.
Unlike in recent Schwarzenegger flicks, likability is not an issue here. Vasile is out of control, as is Romania and Bed itself: During one sequence, Daneliuc simulates a film slipping out of the gate and melting, a breakdown that echoes the dissolution of Romanian society. It’s a suitably Marxist, anti-Schwarzeneggerian moral for a film about post-Communist society; Vasile’s berserk, obtuse rage merely reflects society’s.
Just as “classical” music got mired in the opuses of 18th- and 19th-century Teutons, so mainstream cinema can’t seem to break free of ’40s Hollywood. So perhaps it’s appropriate that British writer/director Bernard Rose—who has yet to deliver on the promise of his 1988 debut, Paperhouse—gives us Ludwig van Beethoven as Citizen Kane, a freshly buried enigma whose complex character can perhaps be explained through a cryptic utterance.
Where the significance of Kane’s “Rosebud” is ironic and elusive, however, Rose professes to nail the full meaning of his key phrase, which provides the film’s title. Among Beethoven’s papers were letters addressed to his “immortal beloved,” but the composer’s biographers have failed to determine either the identity of that person or her (presumably her) importance. To Rose, it’s a matter of finding the true love of Beethoven’s life, who might be one of three women portrayed here by Valeria Golino, Isabella Rossellini, and Johanna Ter Steege. The director’s choice is the most dramatic of the three, but (according to Beethoven biographer Maynard Solomon) is historically impossible. Rose has argued that his depiction is accurate, but its tidy resolution is pure ’40s melodrama—as is the reductive portrait of the composer as a deaf (and thus tragic) and horny (and thus full of life) genius.
Beloved begins with the death of Beethoven (Gary Oldman), and his tumultuous funeral. The task of sorting out the composer’s affairs is left to Anton Schindler (Jeroen Krabbé), a real-life figure who in real life was less loyal and honorable that his fictional counterpart. Determining that Beethoven’s estate is pledged to the “immortal beloved,” Schindler sets out to interview those who might know her identity, or actually be the beloved herself. His progress is paced by flashbacks, in which the composer is shown to be as volatile and petulant, if not as juvenile, as Amadeus‘ Mozart.
Though he sometimes courts groupies and trashes hotel rooms with the addled vigor of a Sid Vicious, this Beethoven is a subtler creation than many of Oldman’s roles. His complexity is one of the principal assets of what is in most ways a conventional biopic, pitched to the PBS audience with its bludgeoning use of tons of Beethoven (and a little Rossini), including every passage (the Fifth, the Ninth, the “Moonlight”) familiar to those who’ve only heard the composer’s work in TV commercials. The movie even opens with that famous Fifth Symphony riff, the “Smoke on the Water” of orchestral music. (How much more amusing it would have been to follow the example of Jean-Luc Godard, who did an all-Beethoven adaptation of Bizet’s Carmen.)
Aside from Oldman, Beloved benefits from the Old World look of Prague (impersonating early-19th-century Vienna), Krabbé’s earnestness, Rossellini’s charm, and Peter Suschitzky’s photography. The latter is crucial to the most effective (and most Paperhouse-like) scene, when the composer recalls escaping as a youth from his abusive father and floating in a lake of reflected stars—all to the tune of the premiere of the “Ode to Joy.” This sequence quickly crashes to earth, however, when Rose cuts to the clichéd moment when the deaf Beethoven must be turned around to realize that his symphony is receiving a standing ovation. Such stolidepiphanies are typical of the film, which fails to use its subject’s music as evocatively as has Godard or for that matter the Beatles, whose sung-to-a-tiger rendition of the “Ode to Joy” in Help! was more exhilarating than anything in Beloved.
Like Beloved, Cobb takes the biography-as-mystery approach to an irascible master of his craft. The thematic and structural differences arise because baseball legend Ty Cobb is depicted as somewhat more despicable and somewhat less dead than Beethoven. Schindler, Beloved‘s viewer surrogate, attempts to make sense of the great composer after his death; biographer Al Stump accepts an analogous assignment, trying to puzzle out Cobb while the old goat is still dancing around his deathbed.
Writer/director Ron Shelton has now made two films about fictional small-timers (Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump) and two about real-life big names, and they divide neatly: While the former are nuanced and multifarious, with rich ensemble casts, the latter are simplistic and monomaniacal, and keyed to a single swaggering performance. As the title character, Tommy Lee Jones dominates Cobb even more than Paul Newman did Blaze, and with less good humor. Cobb loudly and frequently pronounces himself the greatest baseball player of all time, and Jones’ acting makes similar claims for itself.
As depicted here, Cobb’s character is more than problematic. It’s disastrous, both for the people around the man and the movie around the myth. Cobb is a well-made film, but from the title character’s first appearance—guzzling whiskey, gulping pills, and firing a pistol at random—it has nowhere to go. Shelton attempts to deal with that predicament literally, by sending Cobb and his Boswell to Reno and then on to Cooperstown and his Georgia boyhood home, but the more they drive the more Cobb’s character stays the same.
The problem with which Cobb pretends to wrestle is the issue of greatness: Is a man with such impressive lifetime stats entitled to some modest peccadilloes—such as racism, wife-beating, rape, and murder? Stump (Durham bit player Robert Wuhl) has to answer this question so as to decide which version of Cobb’s life to write, the sanitized one or the accurate one. (In reality, Stump, Cobb‘s “technical adviser,” published both—the first shortly after the slugger’s 1961 death, the second recently.) “I embraced him and I hated him,” muses Stump in a voice-over valediction after the duo’s hellish trip has concluded. “I needed him to be a hero. It is my weakness.”
The audience is not likely to share Stump’s—and Shelton’s—ambivalence. Cobb is revealed as a monster well before the scene where he abducts Reno cigarette-girl Ramona (Lolita Davidovich, Blaze‘s Blaze) and forces her to strip at gunpoint in an apparent (and unsuccessful) attempt to reverse his impotence. Cobb’s accomplishments are hailed in a Kane-style fake newsreel shown not once but twice in the film, but only a person of dubious priorities (a sportswriter, say) would have stuck with the geriatric thug after this incident.
Supporting female characters often provide the voice of reason in Shelton films, and Ramona offers a concise kiss-off of Cobb: “Greatness is overrated,” she tells Stump. Unfortunately, the writer doesn’t accept this judgment, and ends up—in the film’s tritest sequence—actually emulating Cobb’s drunken bullying. To Shelton, Stump’s mentor in narcissistic barbarity has an excuse for his inexcusable behavior: “He invented the modern game” of baseball, the pseudo-documentary announces. Yeah, and Hitler invented the blitzkrieg—an analogy that’s only bolstered by Cobb‘s final image, a loop of the ruthless protagonist repeatedly slamming his spiked foot into a catcher’s groin.
Reincarnated more than a century later and provided with a household of little men rather than little women, Susan Sarandon’s Mrs. March becomes Mag Singer, a suburban housewife who’s wise and saintly but doesn’t quite realize it. It takes a few days of enforced family reunion—as her six other sons stage a vigil for Percival, the one who may have been killed or injured in a Middle East terrorist bombing—for Mag to realize that she’s OK, they’re OK. Now if only wayward Percy is all right….
That’s the TV-movie premise of Safe Passage, a domestic drama that’s the feature debut of Robert Allan Ackerman, previously a director of plays and (yup) TV movies. As scripted by Deena Goldstone from Ellyn Bache’s novel, this is a modest, modestly satisfying family portrait. Befitting the contemporary setting, Mrs. Singer is less satisfied and more confused than Mrs. March: She worries that her boys have turned out too wild (like Matt Keeslar’s Percy, the problem child who joined the Marines) but also too straight (like Robert Sean Leonard’s Alfred, the buttoned-down one), and—pursuant to creating a new identity by turning her parenting experience into an actual social-worker job—has thrown her husband Patrick (Sam Shepard) out of the house. All Mag really needs, though, is some self-revelation. This marriage can be saved, and neither the vicious dog who attacks her youngest (Nick Stahl’s Simon) nor a terrorist bomb is a serious threat to her maternal armor.
Since Passage is basically a learning experience for Mag, perhaps it’s acceptable that her offspring have only one attribute each: Izzy (Sean Astin) is smart, Gideon (Jason London) runs fast, Merle and Darren (Philip Arthur Ross and Steven Robert Ross) are twins. Still, it’s odd that a character study of a woman who has supposedly sublimated her life to her sons and her husband has only one character: Mag wrestles the threatening dog, plays Mussorgsky really loud, discusses Alfred’s sexual prowess with his girlfriend (Marcia Gay Harden), delivers ultimatums, and hails Alfred for impulsively setting some old junk on fire. (“That’s so wonderful,” she exults.) Meanwhile, Patrick just drinks tea, pets the cat, and has sudden attacks of blindness, and the boys mostly watch TV.
It’s hard to imagine any parents who would provide their sons such disparate names as Percival, Izzy, and Merle, which just adds to the sense that Mag is the ensemble’s only real person. As in Lorenzo’s Oil, Sarandon makes a commanding eccentric matriarch, but the notion that Mag doesn’t understand her power is hard to credit. “You’re a great mom,” marvels Simon after she saves him from the dog, and Passage is the maternal equivalent of those action flicks where characters are always telling the audience how virile the hero is.