Film Reviews

FEMALE TROUBLE

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Yet this film also represents Levinson's best work as a hired-gun director (as opposed to such more personal works as Diner and Avalon). Even Bugsy, good as the best of it was, seems visually stiff compared to Disclosure. Levinson's camera movement here never seems showy, but it has an almost insouciant freedom and inventiveness, and Ennio Morricone's ominous music gives the film both tension and an edge of irony.

That's the key, perhaps--that Levinson simply isn't taking the material too seriously. Once the Big Scene in the office ends--in context, it's much more funny than either sexy or scary--it's as if the director had completed his contractual obligation to provide the studio with a steamy trailer, and the film immediately loosens up and starts to be fun. I'd guess that Levinson was already smirking behind the camera when he filmed the rejected Moore following Douglas down the stairs, bellowing, "Come back here and finish what you started! Finish what you started or you're dead!" I don't mean to suggest that harassment isn't a great subject, only that Crichton's thematic imagination, which is as dull as his facility for plot is fertile, is unlikely to do it justice. Crichton is a wizard at finding dramatic structures for dramatizing scientific and cultural issues. But he's like an idiot savant of plot--his tales are readable and exciting, but the characters are just names on stick figures, and their conversations are accordingly wooden. Besides, the big concerns that supposedly are the heart of his books don't stand up to a lot of scrutiny. Genetic research can breed monsters! The Yellow Peril is taking over our economy! Even if you agree that these may be dire matters, Crichton's treatments of them beg obvious questions. In Disclosure, he gives us a woman laying a man low with a single false accusation--having trumped up the circumstances by which she'd be believed--then laments the helplessness of men in the face of such charges.

Shamelessly, Crichton has suggested that Disclosure can be read as a turning of the tables, a way for men to see the sordidness of harassment. It's supposed to be edifying for us lunkheads, the same way that Kramer vs. Kramer and Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire and now Junior are all supposed to be (even though these films were made by men). Yet the weakness of Crichton's nonargument remains even if you buy his line of disingenuous horseshit about therapeutic role reversal. Whatever the genders of the parties involved, the slight rise in potential gain from falsely accusing a co-worker of sexual harassment is an inevitable part of the societal price for regarding harassment as a serious crime. Is Crichton saying we shouldn't?

In some respects, David Mamet's talent is like a mirror-image of Michael Crichton's--Mamet's plotting tends to be gappy and uninspired, but his stylized dialogue can, when well-performed, attain a jittery, poetic pulse that makes the half-finished phrases and italicized mots justes sound strangely lucid. He has written at least two great plays (Glengarry Glen Ross and his little-known existential tragedy Edmond). He could learn a thing or two from Crichton about structure.

As a composer of idiosyncratic talk, however, Mamet is one of a kind. A minor gift of this major dramatist is Mamet's ability to craft the intolerable line--the remark so vile that the only conceivable response, in Mamet's view, is violence. "I said, your friend died screamin' like a stuck Irish pig. Now you think about that when I beat the rap." In Mamet's screenplay for The Untouchables, Frank Nitti says this to Elliot Ness, for which Ness throws Nitti off the roof of a building. Mamet demonstrates this skill again in the screen version of Oleanna, his stark, two-character stage diatribe about sexual politics on campus. Having destroyed the career of a 40ish college professor (William H. Macy) with an absurd and politically motivated charge of harassment, a co-ed (Debra Eisenstadt) happens to overhear the man talking to his wife on the telephone, and corrects him: "Don't call your wife 'baby,'" and this presumption touches off a ferocious explosion in the beleaguered prof.

Oleanna begins with the student approaching her teacher, obtusely angry because she can't understand his book and is failing his liberal arts course. He treats her in a dismissive manner at first, but when he realizes how upset she is--she's nearly hysterical--he begins to speak to her more sympathetically. His book is a polemic against authoritarianism in education (dramatic irony), so he decides to put his theory where his mouth is. He tells her he'll change her grade to an "A" if she'll come to his office now and then.

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M.V. Moorhead
Contact: M.V. Moorhead