No Country for Old He-Men

Sylvester Stallone directing Rambo in Thailand.Photo: Karen Ballard/Courtesy of Lionsgate

For Rambo, the long-unawaited resurrection of the muscle-bound warrior (the film, like Rocky Balboa, is sans Roman numeral to signal its born-again purity), Sylvester Stallone scoured the globe for a politically uncontroversial murderous regime whose soldiers could be turned into flying hamburger (heavy on the ketchup) for viewers’ delectation. He found one in Burma, a land of sadistic jackals who mow down women (or use them as sex slaves), conscript boys (or use them as sex slaves), and wear mirrored sunglasses (standard equipment for genocidal sex-slavers). John Rambo resides now in Thailand, downriver from Burma but pointedly indifferent to its carnage. He has become an automaton, at one with the natural world but emotionally dead. When a godly group of medical do-gooders implores him to take them across the Burmese border, he disparages their labors. “Fuck the world,” he says, definitively. “Maybe you’ve lost your faith in people, but you still must care about something,” says the party’s blonde (Julie Benz), whose speeches and blondeness manage to penetrate Rambo’s hitherto impregnable defenses. He does not care about much, but he knows in his heart he’s a warrior, that war is inside him, that war is where he lives and what he does, and that what he does is what he is and does … and is.

What Stallone cares about is grosses, but that has become rather poignant. A two-trick pony whose increasingly hilarious self-inflation finally turned him into a camp icon (his impossible-to-please father thought his physique in the first Rocky looked puny—and did he show Dad), Stallone wants, after a decade and a half at the bottom of the Hollywood food chain, to go out on his own terms, head high, forearms bulging. If bringing back Rocky and Rambo opens him up to more ridicule from the likes of me, it’s also the kind of challenge at which he excels. Idiotic as Rocky Balboa was, the punches landed, and Rambo works on its own debased terms, too. The arrows hit their targets. The bullets connect. The knives find their viscera. The grenades produce showers of pinwheeling limbs. You’ve never seen gore like this in a mainstream movie—in any movie. CGI has made it possible for machine guns to open heads like pomegranates and split bodies in two where they stand.

The 61-year-old Stallone would deserve a measure of respect for pulling Rambo off, appalling as it is, but this Fangoria-worthy circus of horrors also features footage of actual Burmese atrocities. He wants to get real with it. He just endorsed John McCain, too, probably because McCain was a prisoner of war in Vietnam and Rambo rescued prisoners of war in Vietnam and it’s the least one warrior can do for another. Stallone, of course, sat out the Vietnam War, opting to hang with rich girls in Switzerland. For all his heroic posturing, that’s where he really lives and what he really does, and what he does is what he is.

André Téchiné’s The Witnesses is excitingly convoluted. It begins as a romantic quadrangle with unruly emotions and hints of violence to come—think Almodóvar by way of Hitchcock. Rich-girl Sarah (Emmanuelle Béart), who writes books for children, has a baby she doesn’t much care for and an open marriage to Mehdi (Sami Bouajila), a macho vice cop of Arab descent. Her unprepossessing gay doctor friend, Adrien (Michel Blanc), picks up Manu (Johan Libéreau), a handsome young man from the country who doesn’t want to sleep with him but likes Adrien’s attention and the trips to Sarah’s gorgeous beach house. Then the homophobic Mehdi saves Manu from drowning and emerges with a hard-on. Mehdi and Manu get it on, Adrien becomes unhinged, Sarah struggles to write a grown-up novel, and there are subplots involving Manu’s opera-singer sister (Julie Depardieu) and Mehdi’s menacing crackdown on Manu’s hooker friends. Just when it comes to a melodramatic boil, Adrien notices spots on Manu’s chest …

It’s 1984, you see, and what follows is literally a coitus interruptus. Manu declines, Mehdi goes nuts with longing, Adrien throws himself into AIDS research, Sarah appropriates Manu’s story for her first grown-up book … Téchiné seems to relish how the narrative sputters and the characters turn inward, and in his circumlocutory way he makes the AIDS trauma new again. It was an interruption—a brutal end to a hard-won sexual freedom. The characters in The Witnesses form an unexpected microcosm.

There are ellipses in The Witnesses, events filled in by the narrator that leave us scratching our heads: Téchiné left out that? The ending isn’t much of an ending. But in an interview, Téchiné quotes Fritz Lang: “Death is not an ending.” He also has a character in the movie say, of a work of art, “The hub keeps shifting, like in life.” It’s no mean feat to shift the hub and leave us more intrigued than annoyed.

Lior, the subject of Ilana Trachtman’s haunting, bittersweet documentary Praying With Lior, is a 13-year-old boy with Down syndrome and a fervent love of davening—the evocative Yiddish word for praying. In his prayers he is so bright-eyed, so joyful, that some congregants consider him a spiritual genius; his mother, Devorah, the rabbi of a Reconstructionist synagogue, says she rushes home from chemotherapy to daven with him. She hopes she’ll be there for his bar mitzvah, but this is footage from the nineties; she died in 1997. Seven years later, his rabbi father, Mordechai, works to prepare Lior for the coming-of-age ceremony—and for what he fears will be a life of disappointment.

Mordechai plays the role of party pooper: It falls to him to warn people against projecting things onto his son, who is, he says, no rebbe. But is Mordechai, hyperconscious of his son’s failings, going too far in the other, skeptical direction? I ask that with no disrespect: Mordechai emerges as a thoughtful and loving father, and he’s probably right. The mystery at the heart of Praying With Lior is just how much this beatific young boy understands. Has he fully digested the meaning of his way of life, or is he parroting his father and devoted older brother? On the other hand, doesn’t all prayer come down to parroting—to endless repetition that leads to a sense of transcendence?

Praying With Lior engages us on so many levels it transcends its middle-class Jewish milieu. It touches on the weird dynamics of family: Lior’s little sister has not only lost her mother but she can’t be the baby of the house—that’s his role. It depicts a warm and nurturing community that gathers around Lior, both to protect him and to be transformed by his miraculous presence. It’s about cruel limitations and sudden, blessed freedoms.

Apart from the loss to his family, the saddest thing about the death of Heath Ledger is that he was still unformed. He wasn’t a great actor, but he was a good and hugely appealing one, and he could have become great—he was nakedly desperate to measure up to the stardom that was thrust on him so suddenly.

Ledger was unlike most of today’s leading juveniles (Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Hartnett, Shia LaBeouf), who are light- middleweights with a feminine side. He was beefy, with a deep voice that was always more engaging, more musical, when he didn’t have to pretend to be American. I always thought of him—this is a fantasy—as an affable high-school jock who’s voted student-council president and lands the lead in the spring musical (maybe Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls) and gets by on charm—but who smokes a little too much dope and drops acid and comes to realize that charm means little in the universe’s vast scheme. So he broods and pushes himself and is perpetually unsatisfied … and grows as an artist, but at a cost to his autonomy.

Those of us who were, yes, charmed by Ledger in 10 Things I Hate About You and A Knight’s Tale were stunned to see his work in Monster’s Ball. As the son who can never please his father and who finally, in a frenzy, shoots himself in the heart, he was so raw that he was difficult to watch. He wasn’t classically trained, and he couldn’t take refuge in craft or use the Method to harness his emotions. He wanted to push the boundaries like Johnny Depp, but he lacked Depp’s self-protective nuttiness.

Ledger never completely transformed—not even in Brokeback Mountain, in which his gay Marlboro Man Ennis Del Mar was more of a brilliant impersonation than a flesh-and-blood human being. But there was something hypnotic about his cowboy lockjaw and uncanny low tones. Ledger made Ennis’s whole life subtextual; he made you feel the unbridgeable gap between his mythical affect and the emotions that he didn’t dare unleash.

In life, Ledger probably had license to act out too much. Film actors are fragile creatures, and if that sounds patronizing, well, it’s meant to: I am their patron, and so are you. In return for celebrity and its attendant privileges, we ask our movie stars to stay beautiful and, even more important, to stay open, to drop the kinds of defenses that keep us all from imploding. It’s no wonder most of them self-medicate like mad. Heath Ledger’s work was inspiring, but his death is a reminder of what a dangerous art this can be.

The minimalist, black-silhouetted Rambo posters adorning the city’s streets and subways are the work of Jason Lindeman of Ignition Print, a Santa Monica, California–based design firm. The stencil-and-spray-paint image, created as a T-shirt design, is far less violent than previous Rambo-movie posters (Rambo wearing a machine gun, Rambo wearing grenades, etc.), and Tim Palen, co-president of marketing for Lionsgate, recently explained the thinking behind the peaceful posters to the New York Times. It’s “Che Guevara crossed with Jesus Christ by way of Andy Warhol,” he said. “In a way, he’s all of those.”

Directed by Sylvester Stallone. Lionsgate. R.

The Witnesses
Directed by André Téchiné. Strand. NR.

Praying With Lior
Directed by Ilana Trachtman. First Run Features. NR.


No Country for Old He-Men