Joe Queenan: Foreign Duty
Worn down by brainless summer blockbusters, Joe Queenan swore off crass Hollywood fare and vowed to return to a cinematic diet of sensitive, intelligent foreign films like the ones that illuminated his youth. He lasted a week.
Several months ago, I suffered through Godzilla, the film in which the French government sets off a nuclear explosion somewhere in the South Pacific, thereby making it impossible for a genetically mutated Matthew Broderick to ever act again. The same week, I gritted my teeth and languished through Deep Impact, the film in which half the population of the East Coast of the United States is wiped out by a tidal wave engineered by unscrupulous hair stylists determined to make sure that the heavily banged Kewpie doll played by Tea Leoni is really dead. Finally, a few weeks later, I sat through Armageddon, the film in which Bruce Willis and a bunch of roughneck oil drillers accept a temporary job on an asteroid hurtling toward planet Earth because the Texas economy is on the ropes, the benefits in outer space are better and Liv Tyler's pouting makes them anxious to leave this solar system.
Each of these movies was implacably stupid. More stupid than the usual drivel I had to watch as part of my job. In fact, the extreme discomfort I experienced sitting in theaters watching this troika of moronic, vastly overhyped, utterly dim-witted, recrudescently American films made by complete simpletons caused me to long for an earlier, innocent time before I became a film critic when I would never dream of ingesting such tripe. Back in those halcyon days of yore, I would while away the days gazing at legendary films crafted by such titans as Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Francois Truffaut and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Now I whiled away the days gazing at films starring Billy Zane. Whatever had happened to that wide-eyed youth, so full of brio, panache, joie de vivre, je ne sais quoi? How had he allowed himself to degenerate into a middle-aged philistine, hanging around half-empty theaters every afternoon watching jerry-rigged flapdoodle like Godzilla and Deep Impact? What had happened to that personal Golden Age when he only went to see films with tiny yellow subtitles where taciturn Scandinavians played chess with Death? How had he become so lowbrow, so crass?
Right then and there I made a crucial decision. After 10 years of writing about American movies for publications such as Movieline, I'd had it up to here with the repellent effluvia emanating from Hollywood like a bottomless Danube of Dung. From here on out, I was going to make a complete break with my previous moviegoing habits. I was only going to see foreign films, the kind of sensitive, intelligent, well-scripted, beautifully acted motion pictures that were all but extinct in Hollywood. I would only watch movies that spoke to the human heart. I would plight my troth to the search for the one, the true, and the beautiful, none of which I was likely to find in movies starring Joe Pesci. From this day onward, I was going first-class.
Things did not get off to such a great start. Although the advertisement assured me that Pavel Chukhrai's The Thief would steal my heart, the only thing The Thief stole was my money. A ponderous tale of woe set in Russia in 1952, when Joseph Stalin still ruled the roost, the film chronicles the misadventures of a young woman named Katya who falls in love with a charismatic professional thief named Tolyan. Because Katya desperately needs a husband and her adorable six-year-old boy Sanya desperately needs a father, she agrees to masquerade as the thief's wife, making it possible for them to obtain lodging in apartment houses he then pillages. The thief turns out to be a complete monster, not unlike Joseph Stalin, also a bit of a thief himself. In fact, just to make sure that no one misses the point of the film, Tolyan has a tattoo of Stalin emblazoned on his chest. It quickly becomes obvious that The Thief, which involves a good deal of smoking, starvation, subarctic weather, death, unnecessary accordion playing and peeing in one's pants, is an indictment of Stalin, the pitiless tyrant who broke his country's heart by stealing everything he could get his hands on. Well, that and killing millions of people.
Although I like unbelievably depressing movies set in rural Russia in 1952 as much as the next guy, I cannot pretend that The Thief was my shot of vodka. First, I'd already read that Stalin was a prick, so I didn't really need this film to drill it into me for two hours. And second, the acting was straight out of the Silent Film era. The Commie Silent Film Era. Sure, The Thief was a better film than Godzilla, in that it posed a large number of serious philosophical questions and didn't star Matthew Broderick, but all in all I can't actually say that I enjoyed it. It certainly was not in a class with the great foreign films I'd seen as a young man; it was slow, didactic and, well, grim. I sincerely hoped that my next outing would be more successful.
My next outing was actually less successful. Even though Zhang Yuan's East Palace West Palace is perhaps the finest movie ever made about the plight of sexually ambivalent mainland Chinese park police caught in the throes of a struggle to maintain civic order in an environment constantly being invaded by promiscuous young homosexuals, it still basically sucked. In it, a thirtysomething, ostensibly straight, park policeman working the mean streets of Beijing arrests a good-looking young homosexual for soliciting sex with strangers and then spends the entire night interrogating the gay perp about his sexual predilections. The cop, needless to say, is dressed in a black leather jacket, and, needless to say, the young detainee eventually confesses that one of his earliest sexual fantasies was spawned when his mother warned him: "Be good or the policeman will come and get you." Since that time, the young man has gone out of his way not to be good. Tonight could be the big payoff.
Much of what the young man has to say proves disgusting to the policeman. For instance, when he talks about being tortured by an older man who beat him with a belt and put out cigarettes on his chest, he notes: "It was unsettling, but rather pleasant." As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that the Hunan House of Love has many rooms and that this Pekinese party animal has been in all of them.
Since I had never before seen a film about the travails of sexually ambivalent mainland Chinese park police plagued by irksomely precocious young gays, I initially found the subject matter quite engrossing. But then when the cop forced his captive to get all dolled up like a hooker, complete with wig, high heels and lipstick, I felt that the movie was careening into the realm of the obvious. I felt the same way about the obligatory Oedipal flashback where the five-year-old boy is seen sucking his mother's breast. As the film ends, the cop realizes that he is probably gay, and very possibly the only gay Chinese park policeman on the mainland. Clearly, this could hurt his chances for promotion. He is last seen walking off into the distance, perhaps thinking: "If I'm going to stay in this line of work, I should probably think about moving to San Francisco." The director has probably had the same fleeting thought--the film was banned in China.
Because I was wrapped up in the consideration of whether this Chinese artifact was really any kind of cure for philistinism, it wasn't until a chunky man sat down right next to me in a nearly empty 200-seat theater that I realized this was the first time I'd ever attended a gay film. I had come to Manhattan's artsy Quad Cinema expecting to see a foreign film, which usually draws a lot of old men in Greek fishermen's hats and unattractive middle-aged women carrying PBS tote bags who sometimes have to leave early because they need to get home and feed their cats. But this crowd consisted entirely of gay men who had, I suspected, come here to see a gay, as opposed to a foreign, film. So when the guy sat down right next to me in a theater filled with rows upon rows of empty seats, the bulb finally lit up.
"I'm sorry," I explained politely. "I'm just a critic.
Discreetly, he moved away.