As Eddie Flemming in 15 Minutes, Robert De Niro plays a superstar New York homicide detective who gets his picture on the cover of People and swaggers before the omnipresent TV-news cameras as if he were the heavyweight champ. Eddie craves the limelight while pretending he doesn’t. We’re supposed to regard him as a media-created celebrity and the epitome of his tabloid times. He’s also a genuine hero, but there is – you guessed it – a dark side to our national celebrity-mongering. Most of the movie is taken up with Eddie’s pursuit of two loathsome recent Eastern European immigrants, Oleg (Oleg Taktarov) and Emil (Karel Roden), who go on a vengeful murder spree, filming their own kills with a stolen video camera. If caught, they intend to use a mixture of the insanity defense and double jeopardy to eventually win their freedom while selling their story to the highest bidder. “I love America,” says Emil. “No one is responsible for what they do.”
Not even filmmakers? John Herzfeld, the writer-director, attacks America’s lust for voyeuristic sensationalism by aping the very tactics he decries. 15 Minutes is filled to the gills with in-your-face shock effects and lurid foaming-at-the-mouth melodrama. To credit Herzfeld with irony or black humor would be far too generous. Essentially, he’s appealing to our worst instincts and then scolding us for going along for the ride. The presence of De Niro, and the film’s strident note of overweening importance, may convince some people that what they’re watching is not a scam. But it’s not a very successful scam – it’s too foolhardy for that. Kelsey Grammer, for example, playing a righteously slimy tabloid-TV anchor, is such a broad cartoon that even the dunderheads in the audience will realize something’s amiss. If you’re going to indict the tabloid culture of the so-called media age, at least get it right: It’s not the big blowhard commentators who are at issue, it’s the insidiousness of the way the news gets reported, if it gets reported at all. The problem is much more about what you don’t see than what you do.
As a counterbalance to the hero-cop celeb Eddie, we have the media-shunning arson investigator Jordy Warsaw (Ed Burns). Jordy and Eddie are like a duo from an old Western: The older man teaches the hothead stripling the ropes because Jordy reminds him of his youthful self. As hokey as all this is, De Niro and Burns at least get some buddiness going. De Niro’s nuggety, streetwise preening and Burns’s romanticized idealism are far enough apart to complement one another. The two men look good together, even if what they’re called upon to do is often embarrassing. Worst are the aw-shucks-aren’t-I-cute scenes where Eddie prepares to propose to his TV-reporter fiancée (Melina Kanakaredes). When it comes time for Robert De Niro to sit for his lifetime-achievement awards, someone would do well to drop these scenes from the filmography.
By splicing two crazed immigrants into this standard buddy-cop scenario, Herzfeld is going after an even bigger target than the media age. He’s straining for a nightmare portrait of the American Dream: a pipsqueak Godfather. Oleg and Emil are the riffraff our shores beckon; they see America as the land of opportunity – the opportunity to kill with impunity and become a star. (Real-life criminal-defense attorney Bruce Cutler, as himself, plays the wild-and-crazy guys’ lawyer; the American Bar Association is in no imminent danger of being confused with the Screen Actors Guild.) An extra-cute touch is that Oleg admires Frank Capra, just in case we didn’t recognize how perverted our all-Americanism has become. Grinning like a cretin auteur, Oleg blithely films the carnage, and we’re supposed to cluck sorrowfully at how moviemaking distances us from reality. 15 Minutes certainly does. Herzfeld’s idea of “reality” is so screechy that even his big points are lost: Instead of demonstrating how anybody can clean up as a killer, 15 Minutes ends up being about how anybody can become a filmmaker. If Herzfeld really wanted to mainline the nightmare of the American Dream, he should’ve bypassed the criminal-courts system and sent Oleg directly to the Sundance Institute.
“I like filming rot, leftovers, waste,” Agnès Varda tells us in her documentary The Gleaners and I (at Film Forum), a lyrically ramshackle essay about people, including Varda herself, who don’t fit into society’s cubbyholes. The “gleaners” in the title are all manner of folk who gather up castoffs, oddments, and curios from dumps and harvests, and Varda explicitly links them to the gatherers in paintings by Millet and Jules Breton.
Using a digital video camera, Varda films her present-day gleaners in urban and rural France as they forage and lollygag; she films herself too, eating a ripe fig or offering up a close-up of her aged hands. (She notes, bemusedly, their “horror.”) Her ostensible subject is an excuse for a larger one: how improvisation and art are inextricably linked. Her digressions – about her own life and the lives of her subjects – are the core of her craft. Playfulness leads to a wider, more intimate discovery. Filming the big trucks she passes on the highway, Varda talks about the magical largeness such vehicles once held for her as a child; a ragtag former trucker in an encampment of gypsies talks about a past life and the wife and children he is no longer able to see; a man scrounging for edibles turns out to have been a biology grad student who now teaches reading skills to mostly African immigrants in the shelter where he lives; a retired bricklayer stands before a momentous tower of junk he has, over the years, fashioned into something out of the Arabian Nights.
Varda is open to the surprise of the dailiness that surrounds her; every story, every whim takes her down another byway. Even her rest periods are resonant: At one point, her journey is held up by a flock of sheep crossing the road, and Varda says how much she likes it when animals block her way. For her, life is an accumulation of possibilities. “A clock without hands is my kind of thing,” she tells us, referring to a curio, and indeed it is: There’s a timelessness, an immanence to what she shows us. In truth, the animals blocking her way aren’t blocking anything. They’re a part of her path.
Starring Robert De Niro, Kelsey Grammer, and Ed Burns.
The Gleaners and I
Documentary directed by Agnès Varda.