Wednesday, December 18, 2002


Addressing his generals in 1939, Hitler reportedly assured them that the world would not object to the Final Solution. “Who remembers the extermination of the Armenians?” he supposedly asked.

That story may be apocryphal, but it’s certainly true that not many people remembered even then, less than a quarter of a century after the Turkish government implemented a systematic campaign against its Armenian citizens that resulted in the deaths of perhaps as many as 1.5 million people—more than two-thirds of Turkey’s Armenian population. And not many people know about that genocide still, thanks to the Turkish government’s steadfast denial that it ever happened. (Turkey’s official story is that the number of Armenian civilians killed numbered far less than a million, and that their deportations and deaths were reprisals the Turkish army was forced to take when its Armenian citizens collaborated with Russia, Turkey’s enemy in World War I. Turkish citizens who dispute this view of history risk being tried and imprisoned for “publicly denigrating Turkish identity.”)

Writers and filmmakers who tell stories about any genocide face an awesome challenge: How do you portray such an enormous, almost unimaginable evil without lapsing into kitschy sentimentality or self-righteous posturing? The Armenian genocide adds another challenge to that one: How do you describe a genocide that never officially happened?

Atom Egoyan, the writer and director of Ararat, has responded to that challenge by making his movie not just about the genocide but about Turkey’s denial as well. A Canadian-Armenian director whose best-known film in the U.S. is probably The Sweet Hereafter, Egoyan makes coolly thoughtful movies with multiple storylines that crisscross in unpredictable ways. Like Raffi, one of Ararat’s main characters, he seems to instinctively mistrust attempts to tug at the heartstrings. The emotions in his movies are nearly always underplayed, even when a catastrophic event—the death of a busload of children, the dissolution of a family, the Armenian genocide—lies at their core. Ararat is his most heartfelt work yet. At the same time, it’s vintage Egoyan, as much about the difficulty of determining the truth and the crippling effects of violence and denial as it is about the genocide itself.

Two main sets of characters intersect in Ararat. The first is Ani (Egoyan’s wife and frequent star ArsinĂ©e Khanjian), a nervously motor-mouthed professor of art history; her son Raffi (David Alpay); and Celia (Marie-Josee Croze), Ani’s stepdaughter and Raffi’s lover. The second is a group of filmmakers, led by director Edward Saroyan (Charles Aznavour) and his assistant Rouben (Eric Bogosian), who are making a movie about an April 1915 showdown between Turkish soldiers and an Armenian community under the protection of an American missionary in Van. The filmmakers enlist Ani to serve as a technical advisor because she’s an expert on the Armenian artist Arshile Gorky, a survivor of Van.

The main characters are all intent on surfacing some truth. Ani studies Armenian artist Arshile Gorky obsessively, convinced that his painting of himself and his mother is “a repository of our [Armenians’] sacred code,” explaining “who we are, and why, and how we got here.” Celia keeps showing up at Ani’s lectures to badger her, convinced that Ani is responsible for her father’s death. Raffi, whose own father was killed while attempting to assassinate a Turkish diplomat, travels to Turkey to try to understand the roots of his father’s rage against the Turks.

Meanwhile, the filmmakers do their best to convey the truth of the genocide, which often means creating characters are scenes that are factually inaccurate but “true in spirit,” as Rouben puts it. Egoyan gently mocks their conventional-looking, often sentimentalized feature, which shows the Armenian quarter as an idyllic haven, at the same time that he uses it to convey most of the facts we learn about the genocide.

Egoyan pieces together his movie in his usual nonlinear fashion, interrupting the flow of his contemporary story to address the protests of the genocide deniers or cutting from a fictional scene in the film-within-a-film to a “real” one showing its creators at work. His insistence on showing us the gears of his story-making machinery generally appeals to our heads, reminding us that everything we’re watching has been filtered through someone’s perspective and that we can never know the ultimate truth about history.

But every now and then, he bypasses the head and aims straight for the heart. In one pivotal scene, Ani ruins an emotional take in Saroyan’s movie by walking through the set as he’s shooting. An actor playing a missionary in charge of the group being filmed takes offense and berates her for her thoughtlessness. Speaking of his fellow actors as if they were the people they portray, he describes the horrors that have just befallen them and the near-hopeless situation they’re in now. A stark reminder of the very real horrors behind the fiction, his words leave even Ani speechless.

Written for TimeOFF

Tuesday, October 22, 2002


Last March, Jerry Seinfeld appeared on Letterman’s Late Show to deliver one of his singsong monologues. “The question is this,” he said: “What have I been doing?” The answer, he added, was: “Nothing.”

Like most of Seinfeld’s material, the joke worked because it seemed true. After all, it had been more than two years since the comedian had pulled the plug on his sitcom. He’d done no other TV shows and no movies, and how hard could it have been for him to cook up a comedy routine? You could picture him knocking it out in a day from his house in the Hamptons. But you’d be wrong.

That monologue was part of a routine Seinfeld had been developing for more than a year. During that time, director Christian Charles and producer Gary Streiner, the team behind Seinfeld’s American Express ads, followed him in and out of comedy clubs as he tested his new material and schmoozed other comedians. The result is Comedian, an entertaining tribute to the work that goes into making comedy look easy.

Charles and Streiner alternate Seinfeld’s story with that of a rising young comic named Orny Adams. Arrogant, starved for fame, and perpetually frustrated, Adams is pure id to Seinfeld’s superego. While Seinfeld seems as unflappable offstage as on, Adams rails against everything, including his gently supportive manager, his audiences, and any comedian who gets more laughs than he does.

But, as this movie shows, the two have a lot in common with one another -- and with the rest of their fellow comedians, all of whom love nothing more than being onstage, yet rarely feel at ease while they’re performing. “You’re never really comfortable [onstage],” Seinfeld tells Adams. “Even when you think you are, you never really are.” The comedians in Comedian are almost never satisfied with their work, obsessing about the jokes before a performance and about the weak spots afterward. You wonder whether all share every ignoble emotion that Adams blurts out (“the jealousy in this business is ridiculous,” he says), but most have just learned to keep their neuroses more or less hidden.

Practically the whole country is on a first-name basis with Seinfeld (that’s Jerry to you). On his show and in his stand-up routines, he portrays the sane center, a regular Joe dedicated to the pursuit of stimulation and comfort in precisely the right proportions. The only difference between him and us, it would seem, is that he’s neater, richer, and better at locating the humor in everyday life.

Seinfeld drops that pretense in Comedian. When Adams regrets having become a comedian while some of his friends got rich on Wall Street, Seinfeld wrinkles his nose at the thought of aspiring to a conventional career. Instead, he offers what he describes as his favorite story about show business. One winter, he says, Glenn Miller’s orchestra got stranded in the middle of nowhere. Trudging through the snow, carrying their instruments and luggage, they came upon a cozy little house. The musicians, says Seinfeld, looked in the window to see a family gathered by a fire, talking and laughing. “And one guy turns to the other guy and says: ‘How can people live like that?’”

Comedian's tagline is “Where does comedy come from?” It makes a few feints at that question, but it never gets far. When one of the filmmakers asks Seinfeld if he was funny as a kid, for instance, he says no, not particularly. “When you were growing up,” he muses, “everybody was funny. And then at some point, everyone grew up and got jobs.” Ba-dum-dum: hearty laugh; end of discussion.

The movie often makes the point that Seinfeld’s schlep through the comedy club circuit, where most comedians start out, is a reverse career move for the star. (“I’m flying in from LA to work in West Orange, New Jersey,” he faux-marvels.) But returning to his roots was a smart move. Like Jay Leno, Bill Cosby, and other established comics, Seinfeld keeps doing stand-up because he’s gifted at it and he loves doing it. And, though he may not need any more money or fame, he still needs a challenge.

Seinfeld never displays any serious doubts in Comedian—he never even seems to be in a bad mood—but his onstage energy increases as his routine grows longer and stronger. By the time he appears on Late Show, he strides out like an athlete. And when Leno claims that he’s still motivated by fear of failure and boasts that he’s “never touched a dime of [his] Tonight Show money,” Seinfeld snorts. It’s absurd, he says, for Leno to think he still might “wind up as a garbage man.”

At times like that, Comedian reminds you why Seinfeld won those acting Emmys. He may play a regular guy on TV, but he’s not one. Not really. He’s out there in the snow with the other performers, peering through our windows, marveling at what he sees.

Friday, August 16, 2002


Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) is a struggling Hollywood director whose spoiled star has just walked off his movie. The studio, convinced that he’ll never get another big name to replace her, pressures him to shelve the picture and tells him it’ll be his last. But Taransky stumbles onto another option: a computer-synthesized actress who looks and sounds however he wants her to, does whatever he asks, and makes no demands of her own. He names her Simone (short for Simulation One) and shoehorns her into his movie in place of the departed diva. A star is born.

Let’s take a moment to daydream about what a writer and director with a light touch and a gift for social satire—Preston Sturges, say, or Howard Hawks—might have done with a premise like that.

Now wake up and brace yourself for Simone.

Writer/director Andrew Niccol’s earlier movies, Gattaca and The Truman Show, both featured clever premises, interesting lead roles, and good acting. Truman also benefited from the guidance of director Peter Weir, a master at capturing life's mysteries on celluloid. But the worlds Niccol created were as one-dimensional as painted backdrops, and his scripts skittered over the surface of the Big Questions they raised (genetic engineering and our unhealthy fascination with “reality” TV, respectively) like those bugs that walk on water.

Simone makes those two look deep. A screed against fakery that founders on its own lack of conviction, it lurches from serious slapstick to broadly satirical, with a jog in the direction of Hitchcockian mistaken-identity chills toward the end. And the love story it tosses into the mix, a stop-and-start romance between Taransky and his ex-wife Elaine (Catherine Keener), is simply preposterous.

As the blithely materialistic studio head who fired Taransky, Keener plays her part for laughs, creating a likeable villain who made it on looks, unshakeable self-confidence, and a cheerily coldblooded commitment to success. Her character is fun to watch, but she doesn’t belong in the same movie, let alone the same love scenes, as Pacino, who plays his part with barely a glint of humor. Now and then he emotes, in hammy Scent of a Woman style, and there’s a nice sense of play in the way he mimes Simone’s expressions and gestures. But most of the time he just plods through the movie, looking exhausted and occasionally perplexed by the goings-on around him.

The movie’s internal logic is inconsistent, too. If Taransky doesn’t know anything about computers, how does he figure out how to make movies with a simulated actress—and later turn her into a hugely popular recording star—without any help? Considering all the people who work on a studio film and all the gossip that leaks from the set during a shoot, how is it that no one so much as suspects that Simone isn’t real?

Simone does get in a few jabs at show business. Viktor’s movies look familiarly pretentious with their yellow- or blue-toned scenes, portentous dialogue, and symbolic imagery. The uncredited actress who plays Simone projects a glossy perfection and perpetual perkiness that evokes hyphenate personalities like Jennifer Lopez. And it’s mildly amusing to hear about Simone’s “goodwill tour of the Third World” or to see her, holographically projected onto a concert stage, singing “Natural Woman” to a stadium of adoring fans.

But most of the time, Simone tries to flatter us into feeling like savvy insiders with tired stuff like a star’s tantrums over the size of her trailer or the rant of a tabloid editor who brags that he “had something on Mother Theresa once, but then she died.”

What’s worse, the movie has almost nothing to say about the dilemma it poses—the fact that, as Viktor puts it, “our ability to manufacture fraud now exceeds our ability to detect it.” Instead, it degenerates into the story of a midlife crisis. When financial success doesn’t make him happy, Viktor realizes that he feels overshadowed by his own creation. He made a star of Simone, he decides, “to convince the world that I exist”—but fame and fortune aren’t important. What really matters is the love of his flesh-and-blood ex-wife and daughter.

That’s an awfully flabby wrap-up for a promising premise. Never mind Sturges and Hawkes; even Viktor Taransky could do better.

Written for TimeOFF

Friday, March 22, 2002

Kissing Jessica Stein

Like the heroine of its title, Kissing Jessica Stein is slight but (slightly) charming.

Think of it as When Harry Met Sally in reverse, a sugar-coated rom-com about two people who try to find true love together and wind up as true friends instead. The twist, as you probably know by now, is that the two are women.