Film Reviews

Auteur, auteur!

As of about 25 years ago, it wasn't enough anymore for a director to be a resourceful hired gun--the kind of person who could be plugged into almost any project and somehow do solid work.

According to the new common wisdom, true artists were turks like Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Coppola, and Martin Scorsese, and earlier icons like Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini and Francois Truffaut--people who not only directed movies, but also wrote, co-produced, and took credit for nearly everything else as well--while old-style craftsmen were considered hacks.

That hurt. And so, by around 1970, everybody who won the right to sit in a director's chair was demanding that the words "A Film By..." appear before their movie's title. Anything less would dash the key illusion of filmmaking's newer, more sensitive era: that the director is the author of a movie, and that every single detail within its millions of frames sprang from a single creative mind.

Occasionally, when a movie is created by a genuinely gifted individual, the phrase seems less a youthful indiscretion than a simple statement of fact. Jane Campion, John Woo, and Steven Spielberg control their medium so completely that even when they don't write their own scripts, and even when a film is clearly too large to have been guided by a single hand, it still feels oddly personal. A great director's vision is so distinctive that it suffuses every costume, soundtrack selection, and laugh line.

Two new independent movies, Burnt by the Sun and The Glass Shield, test the limits of the proprietary credit. Both are the products of benevolent control freaks: intelligent, individualistic, fiercely original writer-directors who shape light and sound and motion and words the way a sculptor molds wet clay. It's tough to imagine either picture could have been told as confidently and personally by another filmmaker. And whether you love or loathe the finished product, there's no doubt about who deserves praise or blame.

Russian actor-writer-director Nikita Mikhalkov, the man behind Burnt by the Sun--a drama about a group of leisure-class Soviet citizens gathered in a rural estate for one life-changing day during the early 1930s--deserves mostly praise. His film works on several different levels at once. It's a textbook example of Aristotelian unity: the story unfolds in a single location during a 24-hour period, and in a very Old Greek touch, the narrative's main agent of change--a charming yet mysterious visitor whose sly visage hides all sorts of awful secrets--wanders into the other character's lives from outside.

Yet Burnt by the Sun isn't rigid or suffocatingly overdetermined. Mikhalkov, who also penned the script, coproduced, and plays the lead role of a legendary Soviet army officer, gives his cast members plenty of room to improvise. They rise to his challenge and create characters so complex and intriguing that when the film is over, you may find yourself missing them.

The main character, Serguei Petrovitch Kotov--a legendary Soviet army colonel who supported the Bolsheviks during the 1917 revolution--is a burly yet sensitive man's man whose innate decency has not been affected by a life spent in the military. He dotes on his darling six-year-old daughter, Nadia (played by Nadia Mikhalkov, the director's real-life daughter), and is a proficient lover and dear friend to his much younger wife, Marouissa (Ineborga Dapkounaite).

We know that, on some level, Kotov is a wish-fulfillment fantasy on the filmmaker's part, and that the conception of his fate includes more than a hint of masochism. One look at this tender-hearted bear of a man and you just know the picture is going to serve him up in tearjerking sacrifice. Yet partly because the film is so carefully controlled, treating Kotov as both a political symbol and as a person, and partly because Mikhalkov is such a subtle and appealing performer, the character becomes indelible.

His counterpart both politically and morally is a mysterious younger man named Dimitri (Oleg Menchikov) who supported the Czar's losing army during the revolution and fled the country shortly afterward. Kotov hasn't seen him in a while. His appearance is both welcome and disturbing--welcome because Kotov always liked Dimitri, and disturbing because the younger man's bizarre disappearance always made Kotov wonder whether a fellow who lived his life so impulsively and secretively was worth trusting.

To complicate things, Dimitri was once Marouissa's lover. So when he shows up at the family estate, tensions run high. Kotov and Marouissa at first treat him hesitantly, uncertain whether he means them well or ill.

What follows is a slow dance of burgeoning trust. Dimitri plays with Nadia, makes awkward conversation with Marouissa, and exchanges politenesses with the couple's relatives, who are also staying at the house. They drink, go swimming, swap funny stories, and even pay a visit to a tank unit practicing gas-warfare maneuvers (which gives the director an opportunity to milk the sight of men in rubber masks for plenty of visual gags).

Of course, it's a given that these characters are meant to embody both more and less than the sum of their passions and quirks. When Dimitri flirts with Marouissa and Kotov counters by reacting with sweet possessiveness, it seems that the woman is being symbolically associated with the nation itself.

The two men, who supported opposite sides during the war, must therefore represent opposing moral ideas about government. Their struggle for control of Marouissa's affections mirrors the Soviet Union's struggle to choose a moral course in the aftermath of revolution. Will it be the way of Lenin, the idealist, represented by Kotov, or the way of Stalin, the brutal pragmatist, to whom Dimitri might or might not claim allegiance?

By this point in the nation's history, 1936, the argument is moot. Stalin has been in power for many years and has been steadily fortifying his position, staging show trials to publicly humiliate and sometimes kill off former foes and send a message to anybody who might deign to oppose him. Stalin's purge was massive, brutal, and often inexplicable in its choice of targets. He intimidated, imprisoned, and murdered so many people--both inside his government and outside--that it seemed he was targeting not just potential opposition, but anybody with a personality that seemed remotely invidualistic and freethinking. Men like Kotov, come to think of it.

All of which helps explain the film's deliberately obtuse and suggestive title. Mikhalkov has said in interviews that Stalin's ascension to power offered Soviet citizens a substitute for the deity Communist dogma denied them. They might have stopped publicly worshiping God, but for all intents and purposes, Stalin provided the same sort of implacable, supernatural image for them to worship. "Where once a husband and wife might have said, 'Thank God we found one another,'" Mikhalkov has observed, "They would say, during this time, 'Thank Stalin we found one another.'"

The Soviet dictator was as fixed in his position as the sun, and as he grew older, he was nearly as predictable in his movements. He satisfied the Soviet people's need for absolute, predictable order, for an object in which they could place total confidence and faith.

The irony, says this film, is that Soviets tend to greet each new turnover in their government with the same level of fanatical devotion. They salute each rising of the sun and forget the suns that orbited their lives before. They are so trusting that they bathe in new orders--revel in them--until they are burned by them.

All of this sounds disturbingly like an assignment for an English 101 final. But fortunately, although the picture is meant as political allegory, it only occasionally feels like it.

Most of the time, it's a full-blooded, funny, sexy, very entertaining domestic melodrama. Like the short stories and plays of Anton Chekhov, another legendary Russian minimalist, Mikhalkov pursues larger meanings via sparing details. If you know little about the Soviet Union's early history, you'll have trouble figuring out who does what to whom and why. But whenever you get lost in a sea of symbolism, Mikhalkov tosses you an emotional life preserver--a warm moment, a gorgeous pastoral image, or a belly laugh.

Mikhalkov is most confident when he deals with human emotions--with the subtle interplay between adults who have settled into their lives, have grown to know and love one another, yet still have the capacity to be astonished and surprised by what their dearest friends and relatives say and do.

One of the most engaging sequences of the picture has Dimitri standing on a stairwell with little Nadia, teaching her how to do an amateurish soft-shoe number. Like much of Burnt by the Sun, it unfolds in real time, slowly but attentively, letting you observe and appreciate the most minute details of human interaction.

By the time Kotov appears and shows Dimitri and Nadia what real tapdancing is all about, you're so enraptured you might laugh out loud. Kotov might be a shaggy Russian bear, but he moves like a Mexican jumping bean. His clunky but enthusiastic movements remind you why you love movies--if the rest of the picture hasn't done so already.

Another consummate auteur, American writer-director Charles Burnett, has been a critics' darling ever since his 1978 debut Killer of Sheep, about the life of a poor stockyard worker. Since that time, he has established himself as one of the most artistically ambitious (and intellectually rigorous) artists in Hollywood.

In working methods, he's become the African-American counterpart to Stanley Kubrick, taking years to write his scripts, find financing, direct, edit, and promote each new project. As a result, each new Burnett film gets several years' worth of buildup, and when it arrives, expectations are sometimes unfairly high.

Burnett, to his credit, exceeds them with alarming regularity. His 1990 domestic drama To Sleep With Anger, an elegant, elliptical movie about a Deep South relative (Danny Glover) who upends the life of a middle-class, California-ized L.A. family, was hailed as a masterwork of understated social observation. Some critics called it one of the finest American films of the past quarter-century.

In light of such praise, Burnett's latest picture, The Glass Shield, will probably come as a disappointment to many critics and fans and a turnoff to first-time viewers of his work. An intriguing reworking of the police corruption subgenre, the picture follows the brief career of a young African-American patrolman named J.J. Johnson (Michael Boatman), the first black face in an all-white suburban California police department.

Weaned on comic books, movies, and other heroic representations of cops, J.J. enters his job with feckless idealism, but soon discovers that his new colleagues aren't terribly friendly. They avoid getting to know him and shoot disapproving looks when he's done nothing to offend them. His superiors come down on him extra hard whenever he screws up, and they ride him much harder than most of J.J.'s fellow patrolmen.

Because he's so eager to be accepted, J.J. makes a crucial mistake: he agrees to fudge an arrest report to protect a gung-ho white officer (Don Harvey) who's accused of mistreating a murder suspect (Ice Cube). Once he's gone down the dishonest road, J.J. discovers it's astonishingly hard to turn back.

Burnett explores the subtle office racism of the 1990s with remarkable clarity. Coupled with his restrained approach to storytelling, which eschews harsh language and explicit violence and advances the plot in a series of short, emotionally direct scenes, The Glass Shield looks and sounds, at first, like a startlingly original movie.

But it goes off the rails when J.J. realizes that the minor corruptions he observes among his white peers are just the tip of the iceberg. With the help of a white female cop, Deborah Fields (Lori Petty), who's sympathetic to his oppression, J.J. embarks on a campaign to expose the evil in his own department, alienating his fellow officers along the way. Eventually he is drawn into a film noirish web of thuggery, murder, and other outrages--few of which are presented in a plausible, realistically detailed manner. The movie abandons workaday believability and settles into a weirdly unconvincing pop-culture fugue state, piling incident upon outrageous incident until the likable, intelligent film you were watching originally is transformed into a slightly-above-average episode of "Miami Vice" or "In the Heat of the Night."

The actors are uniformly fine, especially Boatman in the lead; Ice Cube as the put-upon murder suspect; and Richard Anderson--a.k.a. Oscar Goldman from TV's "The Six Million Dollar Man"--as a veteran division chief whose lifelong concessions to corruption are hidden behind a sweet, fatherly smile. (Even Petty, a terminally grating actress, is quiet, intense, and very watchable here.) But these are minor respites from a movie full of too-familiar material. Director Sidney Lumet's acclaimed cop corruption trilogy--Serpico, Prince of the City, and Q & A--traveled this terrain before, and had far more interesting things to say about it, especially the latter, which sensitively and forcefully examined the subject of racism both within a police department and without, and somehow managed to strike a condemnatory pose without plunging into either hysterical pessimism or ludicrous hope.

The Glass Shield isn't nearly as rich, complex, or focused, although superficially it might feel that way. Burnett is certainly to be commended for his astonishing formal control; there isn't a single shot, scene, or line of dialogue in the picture that feels extraneous to the story. But his script needed a few more passes through the typewriter.

Burnett in interviews has had far more relevant, provocative, and complicated things to say about race relations and police misdeeds than you'd ever guess from watching this movie. This time, the startling, brave, and horribly ironic images and situations that fueled so much of Burnett's work to near-greatness seem to have deserted him--vanished into the space between lines and cuts.

Or perhaps it's still in his head--the congealed residue of a terrific concept mulled over so long, that when it came time to make the film, he believed that having strong opinions was the same as expressing them. The Glass Shield isn't an awful movie; in the lingo of its subjects, it's only a misdemeanor. But in the context of Burnett's ongoing career, it amounts to a felony--a crime against his own astonishing potential.

Burnt by the Sun. Sony Pictures Classics. Nikita Mikhalkov, Olege Menchikov, Ingeborga Dapkouaite, Nadia Mikhalkov. Written and directed by Nikita Mikhalkov. Opens 9.

The Glass Shield. Miramax. Michael Boatman, Ice Cube, Lori Petty, Richard Anderson. Written and directed by Charles Burnett. Now showing.

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Matt Zoller Seitz