Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Measuring Up

By Hadley Hury

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  Jean-Jacques Annaud's Seven Years in Tibet may best be appreciated as a partially-opened window on a world, and that's not a bad thing for a movie to be. Using the story of one man's sojourn in the remote Himalayan nation just after World War II, the film frames for Western audiences a glimpse into the religious and political history of one of humanity's most unusual cultures. As its European anti-hero finds redemption in the rarefied atmosphere of this theocracy -- where the Dalai Lama is both the temporal head of government and the incarnation of the Buddha's holiness -- the film strains for epic status. Although its reach exceeds its grasp, it never really embarrasses itself or diminishes its subject.

Annaud clearly has a profound respect for the peaceable kingdom mythologized as Shangri-La and its sad contemporary history. (Communist China, with gratuitous brutality, took over the neutral nation in 1949. The Dalai Lama, now in his sixties, has been in exile in India since 1959; 10 years ago he was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his ongoing efforts to negotiate Tibet's spiritual and, at least, regional political autonomy.) What Annaud comes up with is part geopolitical cautionary tale, part grand adventure, part spiritual quest, and -- in the casting of Brad Pitt as Heinrich Harrer, on whose actual memoir the film is based -- part Hollywood star turn. The parts don't quite add up to the intended whole; the film doesn't give us enough of a single one of the facets of its subject. Frustratingly, it's good enough to leave us wanting more.

Recent press accounts have revealed that Harrer, an Austrian adventurer now in his eighties, was more involved with the Nazis than he had admitted in his memoir. The film handles this problem with its protagonist by trying to cut it off at the pass. In the early part of the film, Harrer is seen as a cold, selfish, extremely arrogant young man. As he sets out in 1939 on a mountaineering expedition to Tibet, his self-absorption as a minor national celebrity extends to an autocratic impatience with his pregnant wife, whom he leaves crying at the station, and a complete disdain for teamsmanship once he is on the climb in the Himalayas. We see Harrer not as incarnate evil, not the engine of Nazism -- he's too self-centered, too much a loner to belong to anything larger than himself -- but more as a Nietzschean superman, icy, strong, untouchable, above the fray of love or politics (the former with its cloying demands, the latter its compromises); he's a golden boy of amorality.

Harrer and his fellow German and Austrian expedition mates, caught unaware by the declaration of war in the late summer of 1939, are taken by the British to a prisoner-of-war camp in northern India. After three years, Harrer escapes and meets up with another of his colleagues, Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis), and decides -- since he has learned by letter that his wife has left him, remarried, and plans on telling their infant son that his father died in the Himlayas -- to wander. After a year or two of braving the harsh Tibetan seasons, they manage to enter the Forbidden City of Lhasa.

Pitt's accent is credible, and he handles these early passages of the story well enough. He has no trouble at all suggesting Harrer's chilly egocentricity and, when he gets the news from home, we see a solitary man begin to cut himself off even more, who feels he must go to the nadir of experience in order to atone for his past mistakes, "to purify myself." We believe this man without a country would wander in the wilderness like a pilgrim and decide to sojourn for awhile in the Forbidden City of the world's most loftiest, most remote, country. When Harrer has finally bottomed out with his bitterness, he begins to rebuild his soul, reach out to other people, and is, in fact, "reborn." Although he doesn't have the technical skills or depth of intuition to make this transformation a memorable experience for the audience, Pitt acquits himself honorably and seems to take a few steps forward as an actor.

Thewlis makes much of his small role as Harrer's sometime antagonist and friend, and as the young spiritual leader of Tibet, Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk marvelously combines a sense of wide-eyed, boyish wonder with a serene dignity that gives the last third of the film whatever stature it can claim. It is, in fact, when the focus shifts to a consideration of Tibetan culture, theology, and the impending Communist takeover of this gently civilized people -- and Harrer's stint as tutor to the 14-year-old Dalai Lama -- that the film seems to grow up and grow beyond Pitt's capabilities. Neither the film nor its star recover from this parting of the ways. Indeed, while the films explores the political and philosophical questions at hand, even Pitt's actual screen time drops precipitously. He turns up amid the historical proceedings occasionally to toss his blond locks and look deeply moved, but Annaud has larger political and spiritual fish to fry before the film comes to a close. In comparison, Lawrence of Arabia, a movie which Seven Years in Tibet calls to mind -- despite geopolitics even more unfamiliar to most American audiences than these, and despite an enigmatic central character with similarly murky politics -- did manage to attain epic status. Peter O'Toole, with his talent, incisive instincts, and sheer physical charisma, helped director David Lean save the day. Pitt has a certain allure, all right, but has neither O'Toole's riveting aquamarine eyes nor his passion's capacity for staring down a script's gray areas. As a hero -- even one transformed and "purified" by an extraordinary experience -- Harrer rings a bit hollow; Pitt's persona does little to alleviate this central problem. And in the epic-meister department, Annaud doesn't have Lean's aesthetic grandeur, John Ford's intuitive sense of place, or Bertolucci's vivifying sensuality. Ultimately, Seven Years in Tibet is an amalgam of good filmmaking intentions which may be remembered, to its credit, more for bringing its subject matter to a wider audience than for the brilliance of its treatment.

Keenen Ivory Wayans is one of the creators of TV's usually funny, frequently intelligent, and sometimes inspired In Living Color and host of his own talk show. That apparently was not enough. Now there is Most Wanted, a big-screen effort written, produced, and starring Keenen Ivory Wayans. Even by Hollywood standards, this is a foray into profound megalomania. Wayans should -- as one of the deeply irreverent film critics in a recurring segment of In Living Color might say -- curb his hubris.

The storyline begins implausibly and gets worse, with Wayans playing Marine Sgt. James Dunn, a wrongly imprisoned sharpshooter sentenced to execution. A covert military team frees him and offers him the alternative of carrying out an assassination, but another assassination mysteriously occurs in close proximity to, and just before, Dunn carries out his assignment, and he becomes the prey in a chase involving every agency from the local police to the CIA.

It would all be merely silly, and another $40 million wasted, were it not for the fact that the film is also a perfect example of the sort of mindless, irresponsible, sensational hodgepodge that is fodder for ignorant hysterics, whether they be paranoid militiamen, terrorists in the making, or Internet-cruising psychotics. After seeing a movie like Most Wanted, the argument of whether art imitates life or life imitates art seems a jejune, if not downright disingenuous, exercise at best.

Wayans, a tall, graceful, good-looking guy, has always seemed witty and intelligently satirical on the small screen; the best of In Living Color's sketches skewer racism with provocative hilarity and take level aim at sacred cows other comedy formats look past. Perhaps he should turn some of the cool-eyed objectivity that has enlivened his television work to a consideration of what this conspicuously failed "leap" to films has really cost.


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