By David Elliott
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, fresh each Friday.
APPETIZER: Reviews of RBG and Revenge
In 1993 Bill Clinton nominated Ruth Bader Ginsburg of New York (“Brooklyn,” she would surely interject) to become the 107th Supreme Court justice. Her only female predecessor was Sandra Day O’Conner, a conservative, but soon they bonded on choosing feminine robe collars. After O’Conner left in 2006, Ginsburg was fairly soon joined by Obama choices Sonia Sotamayor and Elena Kagan. Ginsburg’s fame, with this opera lover branded “the Notorious RBG” by fans, has eclipsed them all. Her celebrity made Supreme log stump Clarence Thomas sneer at “mythmaking around the Court” (gee, Clarence, were you napping during the history lessons on Oliver Wendell Holmes, Felix Frankfurter, William O. Douglas, Earl Warren and Thurgood Marshall?).
RBG, a tribute documentary made by Julie Cohen and Betsy Wood, is both a feminist mash note and a judicious info-profile. That tension gives it extra crackle, because the soberly reserved, deliberate Ginsburg, always the most serious girl in class, is a strange sort of star. Tiny, reserved, glinting only the most demure of sly twinkles, she’s like Dr. Ruth Westheimer as re-made by Prof. Kingsfield of The Paper Chase. She welcomes her celebrity as a liberal icon at 85, doing push-ups as if training for the Judicial Senior Olympics, wearing cute outfits, dazzling both students and online groupies. More importantly, she is a pillar of progressive constitutionalism and tightly reasoned opinions.
The film carries weight, less from the celebs (Bill Clinton, Gloria Steinem, public radio’s Nina Totenberg) than two substances: Ruth’s family, above all her loving, funny, deeply feminist husband Martin, a tax attorney (she helped him through his early cancer while raising a toddler and mastering both Harvard and Columbia), and 2. Ruth’s important cases, especially her landmark advocacies for women’s rights even before joining the Supremes. The shadow of pathos is that an increasingly conservative Court has often put RBG in dissent, if never on the defensive (she wrote the most piercing response to 2000’s Bush vs. Gore decision).The little beacon still casts a big beam. Many liberals, religious or not, pray that she will outlive the tenure of Donald Trump.
Time for a non-RBG take on modern feminism. In Revenge, Matilda Lutz is Jen, bikini bonanza at a swank desert home. She’s there with preening stud-stack Richard (buff, soon bare-buff Kevin Janssens, a down-market Viggo Mortensen). Lutz’s acting overture is fellatio, which stirs the rutting urge of this boulder man. He came to hunt desert game, but soon the quarry is Jen, the Lolita Bardot shocked when one of Dick’s Euro-trash buddies rapes her (she had labeled him “not my type”). On finding out, Dick drops the scented veil of gallant romancing with “You whore,” socks her, and pushes her off a cliff.
Vengeance ripens. Impaled on a gaunt tree limb, left to die, Jen recalls “I Am Woman” or maybe the Girl Scout Manual from planet Kyrpton, and liberates herself (hanging upside down) by setting the tree on fire. A hunk of torn limb is still in her tummy, but soon she extracts that with a big knife and that ole Aztec pain remedy, peyote (she sees iguanas, hears Mozart plus freaky voices). French auteur Coralie Fargeat filmed in Morocco, achieving the amber haze of a radioactive Vogue shoot on Mars. Fargeat’s blood motif spouts nuances: a soldier ant dying in Jen’s blood, a Euro-creep’s nose exploding like a miniature Tet Offensive, and a death ballet that re-styles the elegant house with currents of blood, like performance art seeking a crimson memorial.
Revenge brings back, for some of us cursed by rude memory, a faux-golden age of stylized pretension. The era of Jean-Jacques Beneix’s Diva, James William Guercio’s Electra Glide in Blue, Lilliana Cavani’s The Night Porter, Ken Russell’s The Devils. Candid nudity and vividly faked violence can’t save the pseudo-Tarantino Fargeat from seeming just another slummer in the sado-porn pit. Her climaxing use of a cheesy American TV commercial is a bid for earnest Sorbonne attention (truffle those tropes!), or maybe the $3 matinee crowd at the Sheboygan Octoplex. She should have studied Tony Garnett’s Deep in the Heart, the angry-woman pulp movie (1983) with Karen Young packin’ heat in Texas. Young even packed some acting.
SALAD: A List
Twelve Outstanding Judge Performances
Will Rogers as William Priest, Judge Priest (1934); H.B. Warner as Judge May, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936); Walter Brennan as Judge Roy Bean, The Westerner (1940); Gene Lockhart as Henry X. Harper, Miracle on 34th St. (1947); John McIntire as Judge/Sheriff Gannon, The Far Country (1954), Joseph Welch as Judge Weaver, Anatomy of a Murder (1959); Frank Thring as Pontius Pilate, Ben-Hur (1959); Spencer Tracy as Dan Hayward, Judgment at Nuremberg (1961); Paul Scofield as Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons (1966); Paul Fix as Judge Taylor, To Kill a Mockingbird (1963); Fred Gwynne as Chamberlain Haller, My Cousin Vinny (1992); Robert Duvall as Robert Palmer, The Judge (2014).
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
No movie is more a patch job of poetry than Orson Welles’s postwar Othello. The making took four years, “during which Orson was contracted for, acted in, and dubbed The Third Man. Almost like medieval players traveling town to town, the troupe would gather when and wherever he needed them (for) a study in pure improvisation – on the installment plan. As a vagabond, Orson lived and filmed off the land, so to speak, employing the wares of local craftsmen if at all possible. ‘There was no way for the jigsaw puzzle to be put together except in my mind,’ he said.” And yet the result is a sinuous, seductive vision of the play. (From Frank Brady’s Citizen Welles.)
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
The main critical complaint (Roger Ebert led the pack) about Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye in 1973 was that it distorted Raymond Chandler’s already uneven novel. Such “source piety never had a chance, and those who feel that Altman sabotaged Chandler should ponder his statement to his agent: ‘I didn’t care whether the mystery was fairly obvious, but I care about the people, about the strange corrupt world we live in, and how any man who tried to be honest looked in the end either sentimental or plain foolish.’ Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe gave that a spin and a bounce like no other actor.” (From the Gould/Long Goodbye chapter of my 2016 book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available via Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)
DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.
Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring) starts the chariot race in Ben-Hur (MGM, 1959; director William Wyler, cinematographer Robert L. Surtees).