(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2002)
Well into the new film Tadpole, the 15-year-old protagonist makes a move on his 40-something stepmother, played by Sigourney Weaver. When I saw the film, a man in the audience who’d so far been sitting quietly exploded in disgust: “Filthy pervert,” he spat out. Well, everyone has to draw the line somewhere, but that seemed to me a fairly arbitrary place to do it. Remember how Woody Allen answered the question of whether sex is dirty by saying it is if you do it right. Tadpole doesn’t seem very dirty, which in this case is a sign it’s not doing it right (with due apologies to the sensibility of the offended gentleman, whom I assume would dissent from this view).
It’s an American movie, set in New York’s Upper East Side, but it seems to wish it were French. The 15-year-old (nicely played by Aaron Sanford) is a Voltaire buff who speaks French whenever circumstances allow, and the approach of a civilized, quizzical attitude to mildly transgressive material evokes French directors like Truffaut and Malle.
A couple of days before I saw Tadpole, I was watching Eric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee at the Cinematheque – another film in which a middle-aged protagonist flirts with a teenager. I guess you could call that character a filthy pervert too, but Rohmer’s always been excellent at allowing his characters’ delusions about themselves to condition the audience’s sense of them. Anyway, nothing much happens in Rohmer’s film, physically speaking, and I doubt that many would think it dirty, but it’s quintessentially French. Tadpole’s instincts are a little broader and coarser than Rohmer’s (aren’t everyone’s?), but I think in many ways director Gary Winick would be delighted if his movie left the same kind of after-effect.
On the other hand, I recall that in Arthur Penn’s Night Moves, Rohmer was the recipient of Gene Hackman’s put-down about how watching his films is like watching paint dry. Delicacy is a tricky business. Tadpole lasts only 77 minutes – short enough to threaten its very commercial viability. Even at that length, the movie seems rather repetitive and occasionally strained. It does convey a certain intellectual prowess, but whereas in Rohmer’s movies the erudition is seeped into the celluloid, in Tadpole it seems like something pasted on. For example, the film contains “chapter headings,” taken mostly if not entirely from Voltaire I think, along the lines of: “Reason consists of always seeing things as they are,” and “If we don’t find anything pleasant, at least we shall find something new.” These all seemed to me either too obvious or else completely inscrutable.
Most puzzling of all, the movie has no ending. In Claire’s Knee, the ending serves as proof of Rohmer’s discernment. Tadpole reaches its inevitable decision point, and then fizzles completely. I said Tadpole doesn’t seem very dirty, but there’s one exception – the title itself – with its vague connotations of reproductive biology and vague double-entendre. Ultimately though, it’s the word’s squelchy immaturity that seems most relevant.
I should say that the movie seems American in one way at least – the vague sense of Wes Anderson around the edges. I’m gradually concluding that the director of Rushmore and Royal Tenenbaums is the most influential figure of his generation. At one point Sanford, finding out that Elvis had a teenage Elvis crush, makes himself a pair of fake sideburns out of dog hair. There’s a deadpan incongruity to the incident that seems inescapably Andersonian now.
I didn’t mean to suggest by the way that dirty equals good, although I do have a sneaking affection for the Carry On series (Benny Hill never did much for me though). If that were in doubt, there’s a bizarre new project called Never Again, which filters some of the raunchiest material in memory through the medium of…uh…esteemed actress Jill Clayburgh. In particular, she has one extended scene with a sex toy that…well, you’d have to see it for yourself. Or rather, you should take my word for it that you don’t need to see it for yourself.
Clayburgh plays a 54-year-old divorcee who hasn’t had sex in a decade and is desperate to turn that around. Jeffrey Tambor is a guy in the same boat, on such a sexual losing streak that he thinks he might be homosexual. They meet at a gay bar, start having hot sex while insisting they’ll avoid love. But hey, it ain’t so easy.
I swear I don’t have anything against 54-year-old people having sex (I hope to be in that situation myself one day). And Never Again’s unabashed randiness is a distinct improvement over the dreary pseudo-philosophizing of the recent vastly overpraised Innocence. But the movie feels fake and artificial, stuffed with elements you could basically have ticked off a checklist (Clayburgh’s college-age daughter catching them in the act; the life-threatening accident that befalls one of the two; the background chatter of Clayburgh’s like-minded group of friends). Although Michael McKean’s performance as a transsexual prostitute is beyond anyone’s imagination, even after you’ve seen it.
The film seems to think itself brave and daring, but that’s just another way of being evasive. It never shows us what the relationship consists of – we get the ups and downs and the sex, but none of the necessary stuff in between. And it has an extremely programmatic view of human relationships; would anyone analyze himself as being gay if he didn’t feel it? Maybe in your 50s you lose touch with yourself more than I can currently anticipate. Tambor is only marginally persuasive, but Clayburgh actually turns in a fine performance. Which in the circumstances may be even more impressive than her achievement in An Unmarried Woman.
Last year, there was a fair bit of hubbub about a film called Intimacy, which supposedly represents a step forward in straightforwardly depicting adult sexuality. I say supposedly because I haven’t seen it – it wasn’t at last year’s festival and it hasn’t opened commercially here. Apparently no distributor was interested in it (the video/DVD release must be imminent). I don’t want to over-analyze one economic decision, but it seems that English-language movies are still doing everything possible with the subject of sex, except staring at it straight on.
Foreign movies avoid this – take for example the recent Israeli film Late Marriage. But on the whole, whether you’re 15 and doing it with a 40-year-old or whether you’re a hot-blooded 54-year-old doing it with a contemporary, you’re not likely to find much of a mirror in the movies. However, if you’re a 54-year-old male who’s had some work done, doing it with a 25-year-old model in a soft-focus world….