The new Spider-Man movie opens with an apology about being yet another Spider-Man movie, which pretty much sets the tone: This is a flip, oh-so-postmodern take on a franchise that won’t stop rebooting itself. An animated Marvel saga, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse tips its hat to the existing Spider-Man movie thread while introducing the idea that multiple universes hold different Spider-Men.
That convoluted concept must be fun for some people, because Into the Spider-Verse has been winning rave reviews (and a nod for Best Animated Film from the New York Film Critics). I’m not raving, but the film is certainly different.
Let us assert that Nicolas Cage is at his most essential when you either love him or hate him. Think of his blood-drinking executive in Vampire’s Kiss, or his Wild at Heart outlaw, or his tragically flop-sweat-soaked screenwriter in Adaptation. Even his best romantic leads have a screw loose, as in Moonstruckor Peggy Sue Got Married. Just ask his Peggy Sue co-star Kathleen Turner, who stated in a recent (and hilariously candid) interview that “It was tough not to say ‘Cut it out’ ” when Cage gave his character a strangled voice only a mother could love.
Mandy returns Cage to his proper wildness. A candidate for future cult status and a film guaranteed to divide audiences, Mandy gives Cage an intriguing challenge: He must bury his busier mannerisms in service of a character who’s a quiet recluse, but the unfiltered 100-proof Nic Cage madness must glint from between the cracks. And this movie’s got plenty of cracks.
Beginning with Nosferatu, the vampire has been depicted on film largely as a symbol of pestilence visited upon cities. Just as disease wreaks greatest havoc on places of densest population, the classic vampire sought out the most crowded hunting grounds—the better to find an abundance of prey and the security of anonymity. The traditional movie vampire terrorizes a chosen city, plunging it into despair and either mobilizing it into search-and-destroy retribution, as in most Dracula-based films, or annihilating it utterly, as in Werner Herzog’s fierce reimagining of Nosferatu from 1979, Nosferatu the Vampyre.
But in the summer of 1989, vampirism became instead a symbol of contemporary urban angst. Far from a city in terror, the New York of Robert Bierman’s Vampire’s Kiss is indifferent to, if not completely unaware of, the menace lurking in its midst. Face it: It takes a lot to faze a New Yorker, especially in the era of Gordon Gecko. In Vampire’s Kiss, no one is afraid of, or even especially impressed with, the vampire Peter Loew has become. Or thinks he’s become.
An upwardly mobile white-collar white male from a privileged background, replete with phony mid-Atlantic accent (listen to him pronounce his surname) and sick to death of being always an agent and never an author, Peter Loew was the perfect vessel for a still-young Nicolas Cage to cap his growing reputation for over-the-top characterizations. For both Cage and Loew, self-induced madness becomes the highest form of creativity.
The character’s not-quite-successfully sublimated discontentment manifests itself early in the film, when we become aware of his propensity for dating (or making moves on) women darker than he. Maybe he’s attracted by their exoticism. Maybe he thinks they’re easier than white girls. Maybe he’s indulging a barely suppressed fascination with the marginalized elements of society. Or maybe it’s simply a reassertion of white-male dominance. Peter’s one of the privileged white guys, adventuring with women of other races, but his “perfect match,” Sharon (Jessica Lundy), and the validating female psychiatrist (Elizabeth Ashley) who picks her for him, are both white. The whole thing perfectly encapsulates the Reagan-Bush era tension between politically correct liberalism and the neo-conservatism of post-Wall Street greed (for want of a better word).
Rachel (Jennifer Beals) is Peter’s dark angel, almost certainly a figment of his imagination. Jackie (Kasi Lemmons) seems to be his steady date, though he does more to screw up the relationship than to further it, and it eventually ends, leaving Peter to walk a tightwire between the deadly lure of Rachel and the everyday workplace challenges of his office assistant, Alva (Maria Conchita Alonso, downplaying her usual sexy glamour in a genuinely affecting portrayal of one of the city’s many faceless lost). Rachel begins appearing to him after a bat flies into the window of his midtown apartment and either does or doesn’t bite him (we can’t really tell, just as we can’t tell a vampire bat from the ordinary, potentially rabid, kind), bringing his date with Jackie to an unexpected climax. Vampire’s Kiss treats Peter’s vampirism as, among other things, a misogynist fantasy—a vain attempt at securing power—while allowing us to recognize what Peter doesn’t: that Alva, object of his office abuse and harassment, is the one he really wants.
The vampire has ever been the emblem of a dying aristocracy: Dracula and his progeny laid claim to titles and estates in Middle Europe, and the nightmares they visited upon towns in Germany, Britain, and—by proxy—the United States were the nightmares that a privileged and decadent upper class visits upon the poor and the working mercantile class. Vampire’s Kiss offers a new economic analysis of vampirism: the decadence of the capitalist system at the time of its worst excesses (now felt in the new millennium and limned with dark comic effect in The Wolf of Wall Street). Granted, Peter is no stockbroker. Rachel calls him, perhaps tauntingly, “my little literary genius,” and there’s no question that his embrace of vampirism reflects his unfulfilled desire to be the kind of literary luminary he can only work for. He doesn’t see himself in the mirror, even though we do—an epitome of Peter’s lack of self-understanding and his propensity for self-delusion.
At the height of his embrace of vampirism, oblivious to the fact that his fangs are plastic, the gun turned on him fires blanks, and his coffin is an overturned cheap armoire, he urges, “I’m a vampire…I can prove it!” He’s desperately seeking acknowledgment, the validation that his world has denied him. And he finally gets it, not from his psychiatrist, but in a climax reminiscent of that of George Romero’s Martin, which as early as 1977 treated very differently the exploits of a similar contemporary urban vampire (or vampire wannabe).
I don’t know much about Bierman (a “subject for further research,” as Andrew Sarris might have put it), but he had an eye on him, I’ll give him that. His sense of the city at its emptiest times and the unforgiving loneliness of crowds at its fullest, of the sunrise-sunset bookending essential to the vampire film, of the inattention of the workaday “public” to the urgency of the individual’s needs, culminating in Cage’s Peter literally talking to a post, is heady stuff. Vampire’s Kiss, pretty much never recognized, is even more important today than it was in the summer of 1989.
[Originally published in Film Comment, November-December 1990]
Back in the days when James Dean was only half a decade dead and Elvis Presley as many years famous, my best friend and I twice played hookey from high school to see Sidney Lumet’s The Fugitive Kind. On screen in brooding black and white, Tennessee Williams’ surreal parable—originally Orpheus Descending—played like an overheated projection of our small-town dreams and nightmares. Poised to get on any road, college-bound in a few months, we imagined in our terrible innocence that it might be possible to beat our way clear of Our Town’s soul-killing dumbness and repression. For us, Lady Torrance (Anna Magnani, a dark and smoldering earth-mother of 52) and Valentine Xavier (the 36-year-old Marlon Brando, still beautiful) acted as something like outlaw parents, larger than life in their sexual authority. We understood that this beatnik Adam and Eve could not escape crucifixion by the community’s paternalistic thugs: Gardens, artists, blacks, holy sluts and studs—any life that moved and flourished outside the townfolk’s small ken—had to be burned down.
In the ashes of the film’s last conflagration, an old black “conjure man” uncovers Brando’s signature snakeskin jacket, the advertisement of his wild-child sexuality and the promise of future comebacks. It’s Carol Cutrere (Joanne Woodward), a lost soul once jailed as a “lewd vagrant,” who falls natural heir to Brando’s mantle: “Wild things leave skins behind…. They leave clean skins and teeth and white bones, and these are tokens passed from one to another so that the fugitive kind can follow their kind.” When this born-again blonde—a dirty sailor’s-cap pulled down over her unkempt hair, her eyes bleared by mascara and too much “jukin'”—slides into her mud-spattered white Jaguar and drives out of town at dawn, she’s blessed by more radiance than Lumet’s little corner of Hell has yet permitted. Her going is witnessed by a lively bird perched on an overarching branch in the foreground. No Blue Velvet bug is being scissored to death in the beak of that robin, if robin it is. For my best friend and me, lewd vagrants that we fancied ourselves to be, The Fugitive Kind was a ticket to ride, leaving our Lumberton far behind in the hope that life in a road movie might lead to Heaven.
Thirty years later comes Wild at Heart, a film about two cheerfully lewd vagrants for the Nineties, Sailor Ripley and Lula Pace Fortune. And director David Lynch, for whom a road movie is just another birth canal, has deliberately swaddled his hero in that familiar snakeskin jacket.* While the deeply romantic narrative of The Fugitive Kind labored to deliver a bird from its cage, Wild at Heart’s storyline takes the form of a snake whose tail ends up in its mouth.
Nicolas Cage has been garnering a lot of approving notices for his title performance in Joe, and it’s easy to see why. He’s backed away from some of the tics that dominate his wilder turns, and at age 50 he’s seasoned, with a face that looks lived-in.
But let’s not say he’s mellowed. Never that.
Still, Cage is not the best part of Joe. He’s solid, but the movie itself is strongest at creating a sense of place, a strange subculture found off the main road. Credit for that goes to director David Gordon Green, a native Arkansan who can work in near-plotless form (All the Real Girls) or in multiplex comedies (Pineapple Express). The place is rural Texas, which is depicted as just remote and insular enough for a guy like Joe to quietly disappear.
How did I get here? By what pixilated logic do find myself in the position of defending Francis Coppola’s The Cotton Club?
For years I’ve been pointing derisively at F.F. Crapola as a totem of pseudo-style who plunders the inspiration of better artists, and confuses art with state-of-the-art—seeking to make depth and resonance a function of how many layers he can mix on a soundtrack, how seamlessly he can bleed images together by adapting video technology to the cinema. I inveighed against reviewers who hailed the phantasmagorical bombast of ApocalypseNow as “visual power,” the chi-chi poster art of the Coppola-produced The BlackStallion as “visual poetry.” I complained that even in TheConversation (surely one of Coppola’s most respectable efforts), the central ambiguity was not only, in the last analysis, a cheat, but ambiguity by the numbers (“I could have shot this scene all these different ways” instead of “I shot it right the first time and locked everything in”). I likened the director to his sound-surveillance protagonist in that movie, who was capable of emotional involvement only with the phantoms evoked through his ultra-sophisticated sound system. And about the time One fromtheHeart emerged ice-cold from the dead air of Zoetrope Studios, most of the press had come to feel the same way.
It’s hard not to see the Zoetrope years as so much wandering in the wilderness of Coppola’s own studio “vineyard.” The best films to wear the Zoetrope logo have borne it as a letter of transit rather than a stamp of manufacture: Jean-Luc Godard’s Sauvequipeut/LaVie, Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha, Phillip Borsos’ TheGrey Fox, the Kevin Brownlow reconstruction of Napoleon.