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No Pain, No Grosses

[whitespace] G.I. Jane
Phil Brayer

Punish Me, Demi: 'G.I. Jane' proclaimed a woman's right to be humiliated in the name of her country in 1997.

From 'G.I. Jane' to 'The Ice Storm,' 1997 was the year of punishing dangerously

By Richard von Busack

I'M SITTING in a theater watching Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I don't know anything about the movie but the title, so I have to make up the plot. Clint Eastwood plays a wealthy man with an unfaithful wife (Glenn Close). He fakes his death, then comes back to watch his own funeral in a disguise that a blind 5-year-old would penetrate (dyed hair, cheaper clothes, fake scar that lies like a red plastic worm on his cheek). He works various pranks on his wife and her lover to cheat them out of their money.

In the hilarious finale, Close's lover (Kevin Spacey) marries a homosexual man in full leather regalia. The leather man orders the cringing Spacey around, just as Close did in the comic-relief scenes. Eastwood watches the fun, emoting quiet, crinkly amusement in that Eastwoodian way of his.

To celebrate his victory, Eastwood immerses himself in an icy river right above an enormous waterfall. A dozen other men (convicts?/soldiers?/white-water enthusiasts?) all float nearby as part of this punishment/sport. The straw boss/prison captain/drill sergeant orders Eastwood to sing. Eastwood starts up a hymn about how the freezing water will not defeat him because "I'm a rock, I'm a roll." The theme is picked up by the orchestra and a very expensive gospel chorus. We pull back to see the waterfall in its roaring majesty and the credits roll.

I wake up.

I often dream of movies I haven't seen yet, distorted beyond recognition. Waking up, I knew exactly as four quarters make up a dollar that this dream was about being a film critic, and about all of the uplifting punishment rituals the movies delivered in 1997.

IT WASN'T just the usual ambient violence, the stars in their Rogaine years beating the teeth out of extras. This year I saw two floggings--in Starship Troopers and Amistad--the latter was justified by history, but the other was a character-building whupping too. It was the year G.I. Jane honored a woman's right to choose her punishment. The film was praised for its feminism and its beautifully photographed scenes of Demi Moore getting her skull driven through a wall.

Other commentary celebrated the feminism of Starship Troopers, with the women standing shoulder to shoulder with men. As it turns out they were mustering for another drill through the surviving-virgin plot. First Diz (short for Disney?) is impaled by a guy, then she's impaled by a bug. It's the law.

So much printer's ink was squirted about 1997 being the year of the waif, what with Jewel's literary deal, Lilith Fair and so forth. Where was Queen Waif Claire Danes this year? Her chief asset is her freshness and youth. Naturally, she spends John Grisham's The Rainmaker covered with grisly bruise makeup.

Moviegoers queasy at the sight of literal gore could get their noses rubbed in the emotional splatter of the art-house punishers. In the Company of Men and Sunday reminded us that men are bastards and that the lives of the homeless are as bleak as a month of Sundays. A gay prisoner was beaten to death in Bent to remind us that the SS were really evil.

Best of all, high-brow masochists could sit at the feet of Bob Flanagan's torture rack in Sick. It was suggested by critics that Sick was this year's Crumb. The principal difference is that Robert Crumb uses his art to take it out on the society that hurt him, while Flanagan used his art to take it out on himself.

The more gently reared preferred the ice sermon, as refined a piece of upbraiding as the movies offered this year. Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, as Terri Sutton's review in Metro had it, "climbs and climaxes with punishment"--even giving the devilish home wrecker Sigourney Weaver a bullwhip to brandish. The moral lesson was meted out through the fine old-movie scheme of doubling the leads: bad family, worst family. Worst family is punished to make bad family good. It's like the royal custom of the whipping boy: a kid from the court who gets lashed as an example for the prince.

Lee's material was retrograde, a public apology to all of those deformed Inner Children; it made the sexual revolution look like the Reign of Terror. Actually, as a rabid, foaming Peter Lorre fan, I enjoyed the doomed mood of The Ice Storm, the way it led to its climactic freak accident as inexorably as if following a curse.

Remember the Nixon masked-sex scene? It's not much weirder, is it, than the dog-masked fellatio Jack Torrance hallucinated in the corridors of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining? And even the priest in The Ice Storm is in on the Satanic wife-swapping scheme! Evvviillll! Lee ought to do a horror film next; The Ice Storm's claustrophobia and the sense that the dark gods have to be appeased could be used to create a real witches' Sabbath next time.

SAYS HAMLET: "Use every man after his desert, and who should scape whipping?" In other words, if everyone got the punishment they deserved, there would be a lot of sore backs. Maybe the different cinematic punishment rituals of 1997 evolved from one too many parables of goodness and evil.

The Star Wars trilogy, rereleased this year, is the most important, emotionally powerful movie that anyone under 25 has seen, and the experience has been rechanneled into hundreds of other tales of white wings and forked tails.

By the way, Men in Black was interesting to me because its outer space characters really were morally equivocal. The ending, the biggest zoom back in the history of cinema, hinted that the small vantage point of Earth equaled our small chance of ever seeing whether we're on the side of the angels or of the devils.

In nooks and crannies, there were movies in which the conflict of good vs. evil was more yin-yang (that is, good with a bit of evil balanced with evil with a bit of good). These include:

  • Les Voleurs (Thieves) and L.A. Confidential, both stories of cops trying to live honestly in the dishonest cities of Lyon and '50s L.A.

  • Children of the Revolution and A Self Made Hero, seriocomic essays on the subject of collaboration, of blinding yourself to the truth in the name of a greater goal.

  • Lost Highway, sui-generis madness, sympathy for the psycho by David Lynch.

  • When We Were Kings, the Foreman-Ali fight turning out not to be one of good vs. evil in the least, but a contrast of styles. (I know this played in New York and L.A. last year, but it opened here this year, and San Jose isn't New York or L.A., and more power to us.)

  • When the Cat's Away. Romantics like to echo Bogart's line "We'll always have Paris." This movie about gentrification shows us that we might not always have Paris at that.

  • Blacks and Jews, a locally made documentary, demonstrated how real life could inspire fiction and conflict, with neither side being in the wrong.

  • Men in Black, a slick choice, but when expensive movies are made right, they have a certain charge to them that nothing else provides--just like the satisfying, fatty foods with which marketers like to compare such big movies. (But would you eat a hamburger that tasted like Batman and Robin?)

  • The Sweet Hereafter, simply the year's best film.

The runners-up are The Full Monty, Kissed, Irma Vep and Raoul Ruiz's Genealogies of a Crime, which was unreleased in our area, but was the best movie I saw at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Why belabor the worst? They're waiting for you, like punji sticks, in the nearest video store. Two least favorites, their titles suggesting their country of origin: The Devil's Own (Brad Pitt arrghing his way through a Belfast accent) and The Devil's Advocate, a.k.a. John Grisham's Inferno (Keanu tempted by Scratch against his manly duty to knock up his wife). And, one last time, G.I. Jane.

There were dozens just as rank. All were about conquering or submitting. Real battles of good vs. evil are inconclusive, but these nameless movies had casualties: a million-dollar wounding and a fast trip out of the theater of operation and back home.

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From the December 31, 1997-January 7, 1998 issue of Metro.

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