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Grace Land

Natalie Portman projects a saintly air in "Where the Heart Is," one that seems artless.

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Barefoot bride: Portman (center) with Ashley Judd and James Frain in Where the Heart Is.  

Natalie Portman, who stars in the new comedy weepie Where the Heart Is, has what the young Elizabeth Taylor also had -- a serenely pretty equipoise -- and she adds to it a steady gleam of fierce intelligence. This is not to say that her work in the movies thus far has always been equal to her radiance. What I'm describing about her is less a function of talent than of some innate, camera-ready state of being -- a state which, in the end, may be rarer than talent. As the unhappy daughter in Anywhere But Here, I thought Portman condescended to her character's waywardness; she wore her poise too tightly. In Where the Heart Is, adapted by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel from the 1995 novel by Billie Letts and directed by Matt Williams, Portman is more free-spirited. She plays 17-year-old Novalee Nation, who starts out barefoot and pregnant and ends up in small-town Oklahoma as a species of angel. The goodness that pours out of Novalee is so generous and naively felt that it's almost comic. She doesn't seem to have worked herself up to a state of grace; it's just the way she is.

Novalee emerges almost unscathed from a string of little tragedies: Her mother (Sally Field) ditches her twice; her boyfriend (Dylan Bruno), the father of her child, ditches her early on, too; her good friend Sister Husband (Stockard Channing) gets whirled away in a tornado, and another soulmate (Ashley Judd) meets up with the wrong guy and is bloodied. Through it all, Novalee has a seraphic glow. Portman seems more unearthly here than she ever did playing Queen Amidala in The Phantom Menace, and she's a lot funnier. The movie isn't all that much -- it's too cloyingly ramshackle -- but Portman isn't playing down to her character this time around. Novalee isn't simply the kind of shopper who might camp out at Wal-Mart; she's practically its patron saint.

Time Code is a novelty act posing as an aesthetic breakthrough. Director Mike Figgis shot four separate, thematically related movies, each in a single take, utilizing specially designed high-definition hand-held digital video cameras. The screen is split in four, and the correspondence between the simultaneous stories is sometimes nil and sometimes one-to-one. Actually, Figgis and his crew shot many more than four continuous movies, fifteen in all, with no two takes the same; the quartet we behold bug-eyed is presumably the one with the greatest synergy.

By themselves, none of these movies would be very exciting. Four at once isn't very exciting, either: More in this case is definitely not better. Set in an L.A. that is periodically registering earth tremors, the film has something to do with a philandering, low-rent movie executive (Stellan Skarsgård); his neurasthenic wife (Saffron Burrows); a two-timing actress (Salma Hayek) whose lover (Jeanne Tripplehorn) has secretly miked her to get the skinny; and a host of additional intersecting plot lines culminating in murder and involving the likes of Julian Sands, Holly Hunter, Laurie Metcalf, and Kyle MacLachlan.

Time Code is worth mentioning only because of the outsize claims being made for it both by the filmmakers and the press. Now that high-definition digital video equipment and desktop filmmaking and the Internet and God knows what else are making it possible for anyone to turn out feature films for zilch, we are being asked to believe that all this freedom represents some kind of artistic revolution. But does it? You don't have to be a Luddite to realize that technology isn't the savior of the creative spirit. At best, it's a rich relation. Did the creation of the word processor result in a higher proportion of good writers? The facility with which one makes a movie may or may not have anything to do with its value. It all depends on who is making the movie. An unfettered no-talent is still a no-talent. I don't relish the prospect of everybody with a laptop and a digital videocam converting themselves into instant auteurs; nor am I particularly interested in watching movies break through to some supposedly advanced realm of gizmology. I just wish the kind of movie we have now -- the kind that plays on one screen and not four, thank you very much -- was better.

Mike Figgis is not wrong to explore new methodologies for working cheaply and unbridled by the studio system, especially considering how corrupting that system has become for film artists. It's just that Time Code isn't much of a calling card. In the past, directors like Robert Altman have indeed used technological innovations, especially with sound, to bring us into a denser, closer connection with life. Others, like Francis Ford Coppola in his One From the Heart phase, made movies in which the technology, reaching for a greater intimacy, trumped all human feeling. It remains a time-honored belief that art and science working together will somehow forge a new unity, a new way of seeing. But the great works that have been created in the movies, as in all the other arts, are expressions of that most hallowed and mysterious and unquantifiable of conundrums: the creative impulse. And no amount of digitizing and quadrupleizing will mask its absence.


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