THE CRUISE

Directed by Bennett Miller

With Timothy Speed Levitch

Distributed by Artisan Entertainment

***

As a tour guide, Timothy "Speed" Levitch makes an excellent raconteur. As a monologuist, he's no less talented. Despite these gifts, I can't say that he's someone I'd like to actually spend time with. His persona (the Ginsberg/Bruce wanna-be more-Bohemian-than-thou guy who just happens to see the world a little more clearly than the masses, especially those deluded fools who like the "grid pattern" of Manhattan series) reminds me of the people I tried to avoid in college. Despite these flaws, his rants, which make up almost the entirety of THE CRUISE are quite entertaining, at least when he can stay away from discussing his mother's menstrual cycle. I wish that Miller had dug a little further and been willing to shown us Levitch as a person, rather than a persona. However, there's more to THE CRUISE than Levitch. The film itself is a wonderful tour guide to Manhattan, and Miller does a fine job of capturing the feel of the city's architecture and street life. It was shot on b&w digital video, and the video-to-film transfer is one of the best-looking ones I've ever seen. Even when Levitch becomes irritating, the city itself remains fascinating.


THE MIRROR

Directed and written by Jafar Panahi

With Mina Mohammad-Khani

Distributed by Cowboy Booking

***

Jafar Panahi's debut, THE WHITE BALLOON, was by far the most popular of the handful of recent Iranian films released in the U.S., so I wondered why his second film, THE MIRROR, couldn't get a theatrical run in New York. (It will play here for three days - November 25, 29 and 30 - at the Walter Reade as part of a series of Iranian films.) Now that I've seen it, I'm no longer so puzzled. More than anything else, it resembles a synthesis of THE WHITE BALLOON and non-narrative Chantal Akerman films like D'EST and NEWS FROM HOME. The story is pretty thin: Teheran first-grader Mina (Mina Mohammad-Khani) tries to figure out how to find her way home after school, seeking the help of adults and winding up on the wrong bus. Eventually, that bus reaches its final destination and she is forced to head back on another one. All of a sudden, Mina declares "I'm not acting anymore!" and gets off the bus. Fair enough, but the crew decides to keep following her. She still has her microphone on, but the bus carrying the camera has to keep its distance from her.

THE MIRROR isn't particularly successful as storytelling. Much of what happens recalls THE WHITE BALLOON, except without that film's charm or tight structure. Additionally, it succeeds all too well at capturing the grating quality of much urban street life. (Mina's shrill voice doesn't help.) Approached as a non-narrative film, THE MIRROR becomes an engaging, oddball city symphony. (Panahi's fascination with the texture of Teheran was evident in THE WHITE BALLOON; it's one thing that distinguishes him from his mentor Abbas Kiarostami, who wrote its screenplay.) At times, the layered cacophony of the soundtrack overwhelms the images. Panahi's interest obviously lies elsewhere than in the narrative; he takes plenty of time out from Mina's quest to devote to overheard bus conversations, soccer scores and a heated taxicab argument about women's role as housekeepers as to Mina's quest. Mina's quest ultimately seems like a red herring, a pretext for a larger subversion of the filmmakers' carefully constructed world of images. We've all seen films where the production design, sets or locations become much more powerful than the characters or plot. THE MIRROR is a film where the sheer presence of reality, in the form of the cars, pedestrians and noises of Teheran, overwhelms the careful construction of artifice. In any context, it would seem unique and original; in Iran, its take on 2 popular tropes (the film about children and the film that mixes elements of documentary and fiction) seems even more audacious.


PLEASANTVILLE

Directed and written by Gary Ross

With Joan Allen, Jeff Daniels, William H. Macy, Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon

Distributed by New Line

**1/2

For all the vast differences between THE MIRROR and PLEASANTVILLE, they do have something common. Both are about rebellions of one sort or another against the society of the spectacle. THE MIRROR overwhelms spectacle with reality; PLEASANTVILLE takes the very American route of fighting spectacle from within. There's something strange about ambitious American films like it, THE TRUMAN SHOW and HAPPINESS. For some reason, their critique of the quality of American life can only be expressed via an implicit or explicit critique of American TV. Reality used to be a friend of theirs, but no more.

A high-concept movie if there ever was one, PLEASANTVILLE uses a magic remote to launch a contemporary teenage brother, David (Tobey Maguire), and sister, Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) into his favorite TV show, an innocuous b&w sitcom from the 50s or early 60s called "Pleasantville." Once there, they take over from the sitcom's teenagers, the children of hard-working George (William H. Macy) and housewife Betty (Joan Allen). David seems to feel at home there, but Jennifer rebels against the constraints of life in/on Pleasantville, eventually introducing its teenagers to the pleasures of sex, weather, literature, art, jazz and rock'n'roll. Gradually, this liberation of some Pleasantville residents becomes visible: their faces, bodies and surroundings take on color. This mixture of color and b&w, accomplished with a rare tasteful use of CGI effects, creates some beautiful images, my favorite being a scene in which bathroom objects slowly become colored and a fire eventually erupts from a window as Betty masturbates in the bath and experiences her first orgasm. However, the inevitable backlash occurs as a group of middle-aged conservative men takes action against the "coloreds," as they come to be known.

Even from the above account, the allegorical intentions of PLEASANTVILLE are obvious. It's a parable about the oppressive conformism of 50s America and how it was changed by the rebellions of the 60s. Unfortunately, Ross' visual rhetoric is far more nuanced than his political rhetoric. By the time vigilantes start hounding "colored" people on the street and tossing HUCKLEBERRY FINN and THE CATCHER IN THE RYE onto a bonfire, the subtext has become a text. David's courtroom monologue reeks of nth-hand Capracorn; I wasn't surprised to learn that Ross has worked as a speechwriter for Bill Clinton. The politics of PLEASANTVILLE may be admirable but they don't go far enough. As J. Hoberman has pointed out, the post-rebellion Pleasantville remains unchanged in several essential ways. Women may be freer, but everyone remains white, despite the witty antiracist metaphor of the "coloreds", and heterosexual. PLEASANTVILLE argues for change from within; personally, I prefer Truman's wholesale rejection of his prison-world. But there's still a lot to enjoy about it: a well-written script, superb cast and, most of all, a lovely use of color. For all of PLEASANTVILLE's ambition, it works best for me as a stylistic exercise.