Cinema: What were they thinking?
8mm Director: Joel Schumacher Starring: Nicolas Cage, Joaquin Phoenix, Anthony Heald (18) Level Five Director: Chris Marker Starring: Catherine Belkhodja, Nagisa Oshima (no cert)
Sunday 25 April 1999
8mm is what's termed a high-concept project - high, as a fish may be high. Nicolas Cage, who wears the same long, lugubrious Joe Camel face throughout the whole two-hour running time, is cast as Tom Welles, a private detective hired by a wealthy and recently widowed dowager to find out whether the 8mm "snuff movie" discovered in her deceased husband's safe is genuine or bogus. And also what, in either case, happened to the young woman who, at its culmination, is seemingly slashed to ribbons by a knife- wielding, rubber-masked goon. Thus begins his, and our, descent into purgatory.
Ours, anyway. Welles is warned early on that he risks seeing "things you can't ever unsee", and poor Schumacher fairly bursts his britches straining to visualise the unthinkable. All his imagination can conjure up, though, are a few strategically angled shots of nudie pinups and the above-mentioned rubber fetishist (when will the cinema learn that sado- masochism, whatever it does for its adepts in life, always appears perfectly ridiculous on screen?); and the movie is eventually reduced to titillating us not with scenes of unspeakable practices but scenes of beady, bespectacled men in dirty macs looking at scenes of unspeakable practices. Thrills it is!
A climax of sorts is attained when Welles encounters Dino Velvet, a flamboyant self-styled genius of porn who shoots his films in a basement room that looks the way Hell might look like if it were refurbished by Philippe Starck. At which stage the movie simply goes haywire. Determined to portray Velvet as a distillation of pure, motiveless Evil, Schumacher seems to have encouraged Peter Stormare to model his performance on Vincent Price's deliriously campy Roderick Usher in Roger Corman's 1960 adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher.
So far so infantile. It's one of the paradoxes of the cinema that certain movies are best appreciated by those spectators who aren't yet old enough to be permitted to watch them. And, at least until it shifts gear into its loathsome last half-hour, 8mm is no more than just another Hollywood eyesore, a vaguely repulsive but ultimately ineffectual slice of sleaze that might, at a pinch, excite some dirty-minded teenager who hasn't figured out how to download free porn from the Internet.
In that last half-hour, however, the theme we've all been waiting to develop - we naturally expect Cage to be contaminated by the very malevolence he seeks to combat - weirdly fails to materialise. (Welles doesn't experience so much as a mild stirring in the undergrowth as he wades through tons and tons of hard-core erotica.) Instead, Schumacher and his screenwriter - Andrew Kevin Walker, who wrote Seven - opt for a disgustingly extended climactic orgy of vigilante violence reminiscent of the work of another of the world's worst filmmakers, Michael Winner.
It was at that point that I found myself asking the kind of elementary question which critics seldom pose, but which tends to nag at ordinary moviegoers. To wit: Schumacher apart (he's beyond the pale), what were they all thinking of? Nicolas Cage, for instance. Although never a favourite of mine, he has nevertheless done pretty sterling work in the past with Lynch, Coppola, the Coen Brothers, Barbet Schroeder and the like. So how could he justify making so vile a movie? Money? Did he really need the money? Or what about Catherine Keener, who plays Welles's loyal little wifey and whose sole function in the narrative is to wait patiently at home and take her husband's whiny long-distance calls, the telephone in one hand and a baby in the other? What went through her mind when she first read the script? Or Andrew Kevin Walker? How could he actually write such a script? I repeat, what were they all thinking of?
Maybe it's best left a mystery. All the reader needs to know is that 8mm is to be avoided. Don't go.
Go, rather, if you have the chance, to Chris Marker's Level 5. Marker is one of the cinema's authentic mavericks, an essayist in celluloid (and video), who has remained faithful to his own idiosyncratic Muse for over four decades. This latest work of his is entirely characteristic, an intoxicating cocktail of aphoristic, occasionally baffling reflections on everything from cats and owls (two constants in his work) to the great echo chamber of cyberspace and, above all, the horrific atrocity that took place in Okinawa during the ebbing months of World War II, when no less than a third of the island's population committed suicide rather than capitulate to the American invaders.
Curiously, it too contains an 8mm snuff movie. Marker has unearthed grainy, black-and-white footage shot from an American aircraft of an Okinawan woman who is clearly seen to hesitate before leaping off a cliffside. She spots the plane above her and then, after another agonising moment of indecision, plummets to her death. If, suggests Marker's commentary, that camera had not been present - to record, potentially, her failure to jump and consequent loss of face - she almost certainly would have chosen to stay alive.
It goes without saying that those few scratchy seconds of film are infinitely more eloquent on how easily the cinema's power can be abused than all the rancid shenanigans of 8mm.
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