Film: It's a comic masterpiece - not
Sunday 01 August 1999
Jay Roach; 95 mins
Motel Cactus (no cert)
Park Ki-Yong; 91 mins
I've always had a problem with pastiche. When I hear myself laughing, I don't like the sound that comes out of my mouth. It's the laughter of recognition, plain and simple, the kind of laughter that can be shooed away by a drink or a cigarette or someone asking if they can use the phone. And Austin Powers is as a pastichey as pastiche gets.
In the first film, International Man of Mystery (1997), all sorts of people laughed their heads off over the Canadian comedian Mike Myers with his striped pants and ankle boots and dreams of Carnaby Street and disbelief over Liberace turning out to be gay. That film made millions of dollars, and the sequel, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me knocked Star Wars Episode I off the top slot in the US in a matter of days.
Austin Powers (Myers) is a photographer by day and a special agent by night. He travels back in time to his beloved 1969 to retrieve his libido, which was stolen while he was cryogenically frozen in an MoD safe house. Powers calls everybody baby, like they're not, but just might be at any minute. Women find him incredibly attractive, despite his horrible teeth and clenched bottom, which is really the big gag of both films, but more about that later. His foe is Dr Evil (also played by Myers), who is bald and strokes a bald cat called Mr Bigglesworth. So, Dr Evil is a Bond villain, and Powers a kind of Bond.
Two reasons why British audiences love Austin Powers: (i) Myers is daring to disempower Bond, and particularly Sean Connery, who still drives men mad with his alchemic charisma. Hence the pretty much monthly features on Bond in magazines like GQ that examine the man as though he were an extraterrestrial and it is their duty to create the perfect landing pad. (ii) Myers is a Canadian, but understands words such as "shag" and "bum" and "crikey".
The Spy Who Shagged Me is a slight film because it pastiches what was already verging on a parody. Why bother giving your heroine a name such as Felicity Shagwell when back in 1964 Bond romanced a woman called Pussy Galore? The problem with parodying something that was already so self-aware is that the whole thing becomes terribly inelastic - there is nowhere broad for it to go, nowhere undefined, nowhere artistic.
It doesn't help that Myers, being a television comedian, was obviously brought up on canned laughter. Instead of steaming ahead, trusting us to keep up, he's always pausing, turning to the camera for validation every time he delivers a joke. There were a few good ones in the original film, usually from the mouth of Dr Evil, who at one point confessed that his father was a tyrant, a liar, "a man who would make outrageous claims, like he invented the question mark" - but there is no comparable wit in the new film.
Of course, it all comes down to sex. In the first film, Myers hooked Elizabeth Hurley, who played a Roedean type who looked shocked to find herself in a silver catsuit holding an enormous gun. I think people laughed out of relief - Hurley with her phosphorescent lip-liner and cut-glass accent being rogered by a goon. Myers was suddenly the post-ironic cake-eater having it.
In the sequel, Myers is even bolder and casts Heather Graham as the totty. Graham is unbelievable to look at, with her legs and cowslip skin and innocent face. She probably loves being called "baby" because she feels like being one and having one all at the same time, which must be pretty irresistible to a man like Powers. It would be easy to argue that all this baby-ing has a violent undercurrent, but I can't be bothered.
In real life, Myers looks like the kind of man who practises monogamy and draws the line at three vodkas. With his little earthen eyes and indeterminate body he was undoubtedly the boy who had the sand kicked in his face at school, but now he's rich and famous, so boo sucks to all the bullies in Toronto who are now driving trucks, and only get to grope the likes of Heather Graham in their dreams.
Korean director Park Ki-Yong's Motel Cactus is a superbly careful piece of work. Set in one room in a Seoul love hotel, the film follows four intimate encounters with four separate couples. A young man rejects his girlfriend's plans for a united future; two teenagers end up in bed while shooting a diploma video; an older couple get drunk and passionate; and finally ex-lovers meet after a funeral and examine what little relationship there is left between them. The film is mindful of the work of directors Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg who, with their Dogme manifesto, vowed to make films without tripods or artificial lighting. Although Motel Cactus is never quite as raw as the Dogme films, cinematographer Chris Doyle likes to hold his camera in the corner of the room, or press it against a bathroom partition, or focus on a character's hairline, frequently blurred but never inaccurate, like something filmed by a private detective, or a police surveillance squad. This style may sound irritating but it isn't.
In many ways Motel Cactus is like Harold Pinter's Betrayal (and in mood and rhythm very similar to the unfairly scorned film of the play) - infected all over with a bacterial calm. These characters make love and have sex and lie wordless while phones ring, televisions chatter, pagers go off and outside it rains and rains and rains. But, like Pinter, Ki-Yong knows precisely when to bring in dialogue, sometimes holding a silence - and holding it, and longer - forcing us to sit in the grave with these people, discover their ailments through things unsaid, watch them wearing their grief like stars.
So Motel Cactus is intimate, but at the same time there is nothing miniature about it - we can absolutely feel the wide city outside. And the room itself is very hard to picture in retrospect. Is it massive? Strange-shaped? Grubby? At the close of the film, the room is full of meaning. It's a bad luck charm, a dangerous weapon, court and surgery, a shelter with a cracked threshold, a casket with ordinary wallpaper and a badly tiled sink. It's a black box recording our history, our passions - our illusions.
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