Although playwright David Mamet swears he wrote Oleanna before the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, you can't help but feel the same bitter resentments and frustrated rage drifting out of Mamet's two-character drama that turned Hill's testimony into a kind of national catharsis.
Mamet is aiming to achieve that same kind of release for all those men who suddenly feel powerless in the face of legislation and social attitudes designed to monitor their most insignificant comments for signs of condescension and patriarchal brow-beating.
There's a great story to be written from the premise of Oleanna--a confused, cowed college student strikes back at her arrogant professor by deliberately misinterpreting his behavior as sexual aggression, then lodging a complaint against him--but Mamet hasn't managed it here. He has, unfortunately, confused a great idea with a great story, and so Oleanna hopes to coast on its look-how-brave-I-am reversal of sympathy without providing us flesh-and-blood subjects about whom we can make our own judgments. The two leads aren't people, they're TV-movie, social-issue mouthpieces trying to outshout each other in a stunted simulacrum of the culture war between woman's progress and man's ego.
David Mamet directs the feature film version of his play as if it were trial testimony, not a tense, symbolic standoff. He pushes his performers (William H. Macy and Debra Eisenstadt) to repeat the rapid-fire, step-on-the-other-actor's-last-line delivery which makes his stage plays so compelling. Unfortunately, he records the encounters in a series of poorly connected sequences of long and middle shots. The urgent meat of Mamet's staccato language gets dissected and spread all over the screen like a frog specimen's entrails. The results are waxy, tangled, cold.
Macy is nicely officious as the college instructor who faces the prospect of being granted tenure while a badgering wife, a new house, and mixed feelings about his profession hammer away in the back of his mind. Eisenstadt takes the underwritten role of the gullible, resentful student and does absolutely nothing with it, thus tearing a huge hole in the shoddy fabric Mamet has woven. The character's function becomes transparent in Eisenstadt's clumsy hands--to serve as the deserving originator-receiver of the man's hostility.
The author-director is happy to escort us along for the student's brutal comeuppance, but it's his load which is shot, not ours. Oleanna is as shrill and paranoid as the worst MacKinnon-Dworkin harangue, but so much more disappointing because it comes from one of our top dramatists.
Oleanna is a Samuel Goldwyn film. With William H. Macy, Debra Eisenstadt. Written and directed by David Mamet. Now showing.
Although 27-year-old German director Katja Von Garnier asserts that American cinematic styles--from MTV to Rob Reiner--are her biggest influence, her debut comedy Abgeschminkt! (Making Up!) is the kind of so-called "women's picture" that rarely gets made stateside--brash, unsentimental, funny without pandering. Her film, refreshingly, begins with a circle of sexually active, economically independent young women and asks, "What next?"
Considering the time-worn topics in which it trades, Making Up! has the force of revelation, mostly because Garnier approaches the script (co-written with Benjamin Taylor and Hannes Jaenicke) without an agenda. The incidents of romantic victory and heartbreak are anecdotal and alive, seemingly torn from a diary or a coffee break with friends. Although the movie wears its hetero female perspective like a security guard's badge, don't be scared away if you are neither. The foolishness and hurt feelings which afflict these women don't have a decorative comic sheen--they are ugly universal experiences, sweetly rendered here.
Restless cartoonist Frenzy (Katja Riemann) draws a weekly strip about the misadventures of a female wasp. Her work has grown morbid and pessimistic, directly reflecting her attitude toward her own arid love life. It's gotten so bad that her boss suggests she draw large breasts on the wasp to divert attention away from the storyline.
She uses her best friend Maischa (Nina Kronjager), a shrewd, man-crazy nurse, as inspiration for the comic, but even Maischa has been unlucky, unable to tear herself away from an unfulfilling relationship. Frenzy helps maneuver Maischa into the arms of Rene (Gedeon Burkhard), a good-looking engineer, and in the process must keep Rene's opinionated buddy Mark (Max Tidof) occupied.
What distinguishes Making Up! from just another polished comedy about treacherous dating (other than it being shot last year, while director Garnier was still a film student!) is the rich undercurrent of sympathy and strength that flows from Frenzy and Maischa's friendship. They are at once everything to and not nearly enough for each other--just like in their relationships with men. Garnier has discovered at a tender age that the secret of life--and great movies--is to exploit the entertainment value in that unquenchable thirst.
The 55-minute Making Up! screens with The Coriolis Effect, a half-hour film written and directed by Louis Venosta, a screenwriter whose biggest credit to date is the script for the Goldie Hawn-Mel Gibson bomb Bird On A Wire. His debut short film The Coriolis Effect proves he is capable of more. If it's sometimes unconvincing, its literary ambitions keep you watching till the bitter end.
Shot in Amarillo, the film concerns the betrayal of one professional "tornado chaser" (Dana Ashbrook) by another (James Wilder), who sleeps with his co-worker's girlfriend (Jennifer Rubin). In the midst of arguing on their way to a terrible storm where they will leave scientific equipment, they encounter a mysterious hitchhiker (Corinne Bohrer) who's looking for something she lost. Meanwhile, the voice of "Panhandle Slim," a radio DJ (Quentin Tarantino) regularly intrudes on the trio's discussions.
The Coriolis Effect is like a great short story by a student writer--you're so smitten by the crude ingenuity at work that overlooking a few stumbles is no problem.
Making Up! Seventh Art. With Katja Riemann, Nina Kronjager. Script by Katja Von Garnier, Benjamin Taylor, Hannes Jaenicke. Directed by Katja Von Garnier. The Coriolis Effect is a Seventh Art film. With Dana Ashbrook, James Wilder. Written and directed by Louis Venosta. Both films open Nov 11 at the Major Theatre.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.