by Gary Gordon
(published in the L.A. Free Press, July '99)
Disturbing is a word often used to describe movies that aren't exactly entertaining but have other values that make them important. And it's often mis-used. Affliction was disturbing for all the right reasons; The General's Daughter was disturbing because all that acting talent and production values are wasted on a thin, form over substance story.
Limbo, John Sayles' latest, is a disturbing film, made purposely all the more disturbing because it's set against the beautiful, foreboding, huge and neverending Alaskan landscape. It succeeds in being disturbing because Sayles' singular vision and talent: in the hands of someone else, well, it would've been either a drama subverted by action and falsehood or a vapid travelogue.
As with most of Sayles' films (Passion Fish, City of Hope, Matewan, to name a few), this is about people, as real as people can be in a work of dramatic art; their hopes, their flaws, their fears; their pasts, their future. Specifically (more or less), Limbo is an investigation into how we cope with the defeats and dashing of dreams that layer and often cover the apparently deep well of hope most of us draw from. It's a meditation on how the order of the day-to-day can be tossed into chaos, and then reordered. It is a prolonged glance at three people dwarfed by an unforgiving territory, whose own choices may have sabotaged them. And, fans of Hollywood movies beware: there is no ending. That is, it ends without wrapping it up. Or does it?
Cast brilliantly (as all Sayles' films are), Limbo stars David Strathairn as a handyman who used to be a fisherman, until the accident; Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as a lounge singer who never quite got the break her talent suggests should have occurred, and Vanessa Martinez as Mary's daughter, a teenager, who, thanks to her mom, has no father, and who dwells, as many teenagers do, inside their own head.
When the three set sail with Strathairn's brother for a short cruise up the Alaskan coast, it's not Gilligan's Island. When they are stranded on an island, they are indeed in Limbo, a place they may have been all along. And if you wonder what will happen to them, you've missed the point of what has been happening and what is happening. And if you leave this movie without questioning your own life, and whether you are in Limbo, well...
On the other end of the spectrum is the brilliant, mythical, movie-for-our-times, Camel Farts, the latest in the series of Star Wars movies by George Lucas. Here is a brief excerpt from a phony interview I didn't conduct with Lucas two months ago:
Me: So camels fart on other planets in the galaxy as well as here on Earth.
Lucas: It's part of the universality we were going for. If people know that camels fart everywhere, it makes us even that much more aware of our inter-connectedness, digitally speaking.
Me: Why this movie? Why now? I mean, aside from the money.
Lucas: Well you'll hear me talk a lot about myths, but that's just sales. In the Seventies, I was inspired by the Viet Cong fighting the evil empire of the U.S. in Vietnam. Americans were the Nazis, what with My Lai and napalm and relocation camps. But the world changed; our mythical axis has shifted. Now we encourage greed and a faux Christianity. So the new good guy is basically John the Baptist training Jesus, and the new bad guy is the Devil. It seems to have worked. And the money's important, too.
Me: How do you respond to charges of racism, that your invented characters are negative racial stereotypes?
Lucas: Damn name-callers! You know, originally the Gungan were going to have fat necks and skinny, closely-shaved half-beards, but then all the people who look like me would've complained. When you create a modern mythical tale, you have to draw on icons. Icons include stereotypes. I don't know, maybe I was saying there is racism in space. Bob Campbell could've explained it. Jeez, why hassle me? What about Star Trek?
And speaking of Star Trek, let me recommend Free Enterprise, a smart and funny flick already gone from the theaters, so keep an eye out for it on video.
Two guys in their late 20s are thoroughly dysfunctional because their values and ambitions are all based on sci-fi movies and TV shows, especially the one that featured the Enterprise. Their mantra when faced with any challenge is "What would Captain Kirk do?" And when they meet Kirk (William Shatner as William Shatner-- a tour de force-- he's the only one who could've done it), their dysfunctional world begins to crumble. It's not for everyone, but in a culture which draws so many values from Star Wars, it's a start.