Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Magnificent obsession

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 1998)

On the afternoon of June 30th, I went to see the new British film Fever Pitch, a modest comedy about a schoolteacher in his early thirties whose obsession with London’s Arsenal Football Club may derail his chance for love and maturity. This happened to be the afternoon of England’s World Cup game against Argentina, and of course, anyone who wasn’t at work and had any interest in English soccer was watching the game. I therefore expected to be the only person at that screening of Fever Pitch, and so I was.

The Lone Viewer

I’ve always got a kick out of being alone in a movie theatre. It injects a certain air of privilege into the whole affair. If I’m the only person in the who-o-o-le of Toronto who bothered to show up here, imagine how this movie must love me! Of course, it might suggest that the word’s out that the movie sucks (although I once managed it with the Oscar-winning Dances with Wolves). That may apply to Fever Pitch – I was too pleased with myself to notice.

Actually, I coasted through the movie just by soaking up nostalgia for its many elements of British subculture. It’s so totally soccer; so totally London; so totally British I can’t imagine many non-British people “getting” this film. After eight years away from the country, I barely got it myself. I cracked lots of smiles, but I kept looking at the lead character and thinking: Jeez, this guy’s really crazy (as opposed to just movie-type “lovable-crazy” or just “normal British male” crazy).

But I know I’m saying this as someone who went to the movies four times in the following five days. How nuts is that? Fortunately, since I started keeping the list of movies now playing (which at the time I was updating every week for The Outreach Connection) I can regard the whole thing as a public service. I think that puts me in a different category. There’s someone I see quite often at various films – I’ve never spoken to him, but I keep noticing the guy. For me to see him so frequently, the guy’s obviously suffering from some scopophilic mania. He should get a life. Buddy, if you’re reading this and you think you might be the one (Le Samourai at 6.30 on Friday the 3rd, Buffalo 66 at 3.30 on Saturday the 4th…), seek help!

The Buffalo Shuffle

Obviously, we’re all mysteries to each other. Fever Pitch is shot in the kind of bright, clean-cut style you associate with sitcom – if you don’t like or identify with the basic elements, there’s no reason for you to be there. It takes far greater ambition and confidence for a film to speak in a language that transcends those simple forms of recognition. I mentioned Buffalo 66 – a film directed by its star Vincent Gallo. The grungy, edge-of-mainstream Gallo can’t have been anyone’s hot tip for the next cinematic poet. And yet, Buffalo 66 – dealing in awfully dour, unprepossessing material – is a constant astonishment, and one of the year’s very best films.

From the opening scene – in which Gallo’s intense, obsessive character comes outside for a while thinking things over, then asks to be let back to use the bathroom – the film treads (utterly consistently) a line between deadpan disillusionment, hopeless dysfunction, emotional crisis, and (happily) the prospect of redemption and renewal, all conveyed with huge style and confidence, and it’s funny! Gallo’s character kidnaps a young woman (played by Christina Ricci) almost at random, and forces her to pose as his wife on a visit to his parents (an utterly horrifying but mesmerizing joint creation by Ben Gazzara and Anjelica Huston). Having thereby satisfied some sense of obligation, he plans to dump her and kill the former Buffalo Bills football player (and now strip-joint owner) whose missed kick in a long-ago Super Bowl was - as he sees it – the source of his recent woes. But despite his dismal treatment of her, she won’t let him go.

Best debut 98?

The film is open to various charges. Ricci’s character is too close to the misogynist fantasy of the rape victim who likes it. Gallo delivers a jittery sub-Pacino performance that sometimes resembles an acting class exercise; his character is given a wretched personal history that’s rather too overtly sculptured; as a director, his stylistic innovations (showy camera placement, the unique juxtaposing of flashbacks in and out of the action, his astonishing handling of a fantasized death scene toward the end, in which he somehow freezes the gory details in a near-3D effect; the glazed, archived or washed-out look of so many scenes; the use of parody and excess in the acting) could all be dismissed as pretentious flourishes.

But however strongly you might be inclined to resist some of these elements, the film is a huge success. It immerses you in a completely alien landscape. There’s hardly a moment of false glamour in the film – people look ugly and fleshy and sloppily groomed and badly-dressed, and you can smell the decrepitude in every scene. To that extent, the film has the honesty of a documentary, but Gallo’s cinematic edginess simultaneously makes events resemble a deranged (if impoverished) fantasy. That might have taken us no further than David Lynch territory, as yet another expose of sordid secrets and subtexts, but Gallo never seems to be pursuing a simple agenda (only at the very end, perhaps), and he finds his way to some genuinely striking illumination of character. It’s hard to judge someone from his directorial debut, but Gallo looks here like someone with an affinity for somewhat romantic, edgy fatalism, enormous imagination, and huge self-belief. That could be the basis for a directorial career to rival the Coen Brothers and Tarantino.

And happily, the screening of Buffalo 66 was far from empty. Perhaps the good word is already out. I mean, we’re all obsessive in one way or another, and should all be potentially satisfied customers for a movie reflecting those qualities. Fever Pitch, although entertaining, isn’t about much more than one man’s problems. Buffalo 66, also about one man’s problems, has the upper hand twice: it’s a better depiction both of the man, and of the audience.

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