Queasy Listening

Photo: Claudette Barius

Set in 1985, Rock Star has a terrific premise that shatters almost upon arrival; no bad-boy legend trashing a hotel room could have done a more complete job. Mark Wahlberg plays Chris Cole, who fronts a copycat – i.e., “tribute” – band modeled on the (fictitious) heavy-metal group Steel Dragon. The twist is that when Steel Dragon’s lead singer exits in a huff, Chris is hired: The pretender replaces the star and becomes just as stellar.

That’s a pretty good jest, and it also has the ring of truth. The maw of pop culture is so ravenous now that in order to feed the machine, clones routinely get mixed in with the originals. And who can always tell the difference anymore? This mixing is particularly rampant in the rock world, where styles of music and costume and attitude are replicated almost as fast as they’re created.

Not only is this pop-cult joke unexplored in Rock Star, it’s not even recognized as a joke. That’s the thing about botched movies with good premises: They’re infinitely more frustrating to watch than just plain old bad movies. The weight of what might have been hangs heavily over the proceedings. Chris, you see, is deep down an original, too; what he really hankers to perform are his own folkie ballads. Though Chris wants to “find himself,” there doesn’t seem to be much to find. When he finally plays his own music, it’s so blandly sincere that you feel like offering him up as a human sacrifice to Alice Cooper.

Our Lady of the Assassins unfolds in the drug capital of Medellín, Colombia, where assassinations and drive-by shootings have become so commonplace that they lack even the power to startle. They’re a routine horror, a form of street theater (which, of course, makes them even more horrible). Barbet Schroeder, who directed from a script by Fernando Vallejo loosely based on his novel, doesn’t pulp the violence; it’s just there on the screen as it would be in real life, spontaneous and fatal. By the end of the movie, the characters are numbed, while the audience is sensitized to the mayhem to an almost unbearable degree. Schroeder, who spent four years in Colombia as a child before moving to Paris, brings to the film an outsider’s perspective that is, at the same time, deeply personal. Our Lady of the Assassins is a lament for a city gone mad. (Schroeder’s decision to actually film there brought with it great security risks.)

Fernando (Germán Jaramillo) is a self-exiled writer who has returned after 30 years to his hometown in order to die. His only ailment is a soul-sickness, but he takes an almost epicurean pride in it. What revives him – at least to a more sparkling fatalism – is the love he feels for Alexis (Anderson Ballesteros), a street kid who moves in with Fernando and who draws his benefactor into the murderousness on the streets. These two develop an amour fou with no future: Alexis prays to the Virgin Mary in between kills and knows he’s marked for death. Fernando may have come to Medellín seeking his own death, but instead he finds a passion that only brings him greater suffering.

This is perhaps the first film I’ve ever seen shot in high-definition video that has true beauty. The deep-focus lustrousness of the imagery sharpens the contrast between the bloodshed in the plazas and the impeccable mountain vistas that stretch beyond them. The sacred and the profane are visibly twinned in Medellín. Schroeder doesn’t go woozy with the spectacle, or turn everything into a hallucinatory jag. He presents the horror with a straightforward clarity, and yet what he gives us goes way beyond simple realism. As with Buñuel, who also moved through realism and came out the other side, Schroeder achieves a trancelike quality that seems to tap into the diabolic essence of the everyday. In Our Lady of the Assassins, everything is brutally evident and yet evanescent. The beggar child before us is a foundling who could also be the Grim Reaper. Our lover could be our executioner. Divine justice, if it ever arrives, could be our doom.

Pauline Kael, who died at 82 on Labor Day, created a body of work that I think is unsurpassed among movie critics in its range and acuity and ardor. She once was quoted as saying that she didn’t feel the need to write her memoirs because she thought she already had – in her movie reviews. If anybody else had said this, it might have sounded flip, but with Pauline, it was simply the truth. She put herself so completely into her reviews that they had the force of a grand and highly personal passion. What she did supremely well was to connect up with everything that we wanted the movies to be; she called the movies our “national theater,” and when she wrote about them – whether it was The Godfather or Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke – that’s exactly what they were. She was fortunate in being able to write at considerable length about movies, at The New Yorker, at a time, in the early to mid-seventies, when American movies were red-hot; but she was extraordinary even when the movies were tepid, in the Sound of Music era, or when things cooled down, in the late seventies and beyond. She put on a great show, much greater and more entertaining than the vast majority of movies she wrote about. And when there was something that called upon everything she had, she made herself indispensible. Her reviews of The Long Goodbye and Mean Streets – to take two examples out of a thousand – are integral to our experience of watching those films.

As a critic, she followed no theory or dogma; she was an impressionist who wrote out of her own temperament, one so fervid she could sometimes be ungenerous, or worse, to those more measured souls whose pace for drama she could not tolerate. (The great Yasujiro Ozu, for example, rates not a single mention in any of her many books.) But disagreeing with Pauline only heightened our pleasure in the intensity of her argument. Few movies that have come out since she retired in 1991 would have brought out her full hue and cry. But there will come a time, I hope, when American movies will again inhabit the vital center of our imagination – and that is when Pauline Kael will most truly be missed.

Rock Star
Starring Mark Wahlberg and Jennifer Aniston.
Our Lady of the Assassins
Directed by Barbet Schroeder.
See Movies listings for details.

Queasy Listening