Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene The End of Irony

New releases offer sincere, unflinching observations

By Noel Murray and Jim Ridley

MAY 3, 1999: 

A Merry War.

This British comedy adapts George Orwell's novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, which was written "between the wars" in 1936, when the United Kingdom was reclaiming polite social order. Richard E. Grant stars as a promising poet with a facility for advertising copy. Over the objections of girlfriend Helena Bonham Carter, he quits his job to begin a volume of poetry ironically entitled London Pleasures. Grant, as always, takes a selfish, insufferable bastard and make his pretentious affectations amusing and lovable. For all his rage over the stuffiness of the middle class, the first thing he does when he sells a poem is splurge at a fancy restaurant and fantasize about domesticity. What makes A Merry War so winning is that after mocking the shallow trappings of class, the film shows that window dressing has some value. Grant must learn to be happy with nothing, and then he learns to be happy with money in his pocket and prospects for his future--including the hand of Carter, who can make even advertising slogans sound like poetry. --Noel Murray



Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist.

Despite persistent requests, Kirby Dick's 1997 documentary never played local theaters, and it's easy to see why--especially when the film's subject hammers a nail through his scrotum in close-up. Yet this portrait of the artist as human pincushion is a shattering, deeply moving experience for anyone strong enough to take it. Flanagan, a performance artist and Nine Inch Nails video star who succumbed to cystic fibrosis in 1996, turned at an early age to S&M and extreme body modification as a way of sexualizing (and thereby controlling and superseding) the near-constant agony of the disease. He was far from squeamish about his bodily functions and imminent mortality, and his jaunty gallows humor is brave, shockingly funny, even liberating, as we see in a haunting encounter with a dying teenage fan. As director Dick charts Flanagan's last days in pitiless detail, the movie takes on an intensity that can only be described as religious--the proper word for one man's agonizing transcendence of his all-too-finite flesh. --Jim Ridley



Pecker.

The contradictions of filmmaker John Waters are resolved in this love-letter to his hometown of Baltimore, a movie that's as in-your-face appalling and bottom-line sweet as Waters himself. Edward Furlong stars as Pecker--a happy-go-lucky sandwich shop employee who snaps photographs the way others might nod hello. Pictures of his sugar-addicted little sister, the lesbian strippers across from his Dad's bar, his kleptomaniac best buddy, his laundry-obsessed girlfriend, and other friends and family impress a New York art dealer (Lili Taylor), who makes Pecker an art-world superstar. But once everything he loves has been turned into "art," Pecker's pleasantly quirky life becomes corrupted.

There's nothing subtle about Pecker, but after a year of tentative indie films like Henry Fool and High Art, it's refreshing to see a movie that puts its message in boldfaced type. Waters employs his distinctive style of artless cinematography, industrial-style editing, and wide-eyed depictions of cheerfully perverted outsiders. In fact, he could easily be accused of doing deliberately what Pecker does accidentally--exploiting his neighbors. Except that Waters shows genuine affection for the outr, rather than belittling it. At the end of Pecker, as New Yorkers and Baltimoreans dance together, somebody shouts, "To the end of irony!"--to which the viewer can't help but reply, "Hell, yeah!" and "It's about damn time." --Noel Murray



The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender.

Mark Rappaport's filmed essays on Hollywood's subtle cruelties are ideally suited to the small screen, where they play like especially insightful instructional tapes. His latest piece is an eye-opening expansion of his 1993 breakthrough, Rock Hudson's Home Movies, in which Rappaport illustrated his belief that writers and directors exploited Hudson's closeted homosexuality by intentionally putting him in scenes that mocked his manliness. The Silver Screen takes a similar look at the careers of the outed Randolph Scott and his former roommate, the ambiguous Cary Grant. In addition, Rappaport hilariously observes the oddities in the Hope-Crosby road pictures, the many examples of men acting "fruity" in military garb, and the queer archetype that is the Western sidekick. Some of his points are admittedly larky, but the core point of The Silver Screen is highly sustainable--that the Hollywood of yesteryear was fascinated by male-male relationships and took every opportunity to explore that dynamic. --Noel Murray



Without Limits.

Steve Prefontaine's brief career as an Olympic runner in the '70s had its share of drama, but his abbreviated life didn't exactly have an inspiring arc. Nonetheless, writer-director Robert Towne makes the most of Pre's defining qualities in this thoughtful biopic, which is the best movie about running since Chariots of Fire (though not in the same league). A dull romantic subplot and a fizzling climax aside, Without Limits is fascinating, thanks to the curious relationship between the headstrong, front-running Prefontaine (played with gusto by Billy Crudup) and his stoic track coach Bill Bowerman (the remarkable Donald Sutherland). Their philosophical disputes add tension to the film's gripping Munich centerpiece, in which Pre's attempt to combine techniques leaves him stuck in a slow pack. As a heartwarming sports flick, Without Limits is fairly clammy, but as a calibration of two distinctive athletic personalities, the film is nothing but exact. --Noel Murray


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