Tuesday, June 17, 2008

To Die For

To Die For is most often written off as the first real product of director Gus Van Sant's brief flirtation with Hollywood filmmaking. Following up on a trio of personal, independent features (Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho) and the total flop of his ambitious but messy Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Van Sant embarked on what looked to be a promising career as a more commercial filmmaker, scoring hits with both To Die For and its follow-up Good Will Hunting. In retrospect, now that Van Sant has once again backed away from the mainstream with a quartet of atmospheric, Béla Tarr-influenced mood pieces, it's more tempting than ever to view his Hollywood films as a brief fallow period, even a lapse, in the middle of a career marked on both ends by more idiosyncratic and ambitious films. The problem with this tidy narrative of the director's career is that it doesn't quite work. True, Good Will Hunting is sappy and sentimental Oscar bait that has much more to do with its scriptwriters, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, than with Van Sant's sensibility, and Finding Forrester is probably better off forgotten. But Van Sant's widely panned remake of Psycho, while in some respects deserving of criticism, was also deeply personal in its own strange way, an experiment in cinematic language by a filmmaker clearly thinking about the formal problems of color, performance, and narrative in a way few of his mainstream peers were. The fact that this coolly academic experiment was sold as a typical modern update to "introduce a new generation" to Hitchcock's masterpiece probably didn't do the film any favors, of course. And then, there's To Die For itself, kind of an anomaly in Van Sant's career for quite a few reasons.

On a formal, aesthetic level, To Die For has only the most tenuous of connections to Van Sant's previous or current oeuvre. Its fractured editing style and the pastiche structure of its story is most reminiscent of My Own Private Idaho, which also utilized a multiplicity of narrative modes and seemed stitched together from disparate parts. But whereas in Idaho this narrative rupturing is unmotivated, simply a matter of stylistic idiosyncrasy in the film's construction, in To Die For the structure and style are intimately linked with the film's overarching theme: the media. It's the difference between the pure aesthetics of the earlier films and the more commercial nature of this project, based on a sensationalist novel and awash in trash culture. Van Sant's seeming move towards traditional storytelling places the film apart from both his rambling earlier films and his more recent nearly plotless and wordless meditations on character and place. And yet the film also stands apart even from Van Sant's other mainstream films, because in a way it's as personal a film as any other he's done — just a personal film in a vein he hasn't mined otherwise either before or since.

From the very start, To Die For is an intensely mediated film. The opening titles, themselves a minor masterpiece in design and editing, focus on newspaper cutouts and black and white photos of the TV anchorwoman Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman), who is being arrested in connection with a murder and sex scandal. The credits, accompanied by drastic shifts between sweeping cinematic music and bursts of thrash metal, pan over this material with a loving eye for both the language used (some variation on "sex" is present in virtually every text displayed) and the texture of the media itself. As the credit sequence progresses, the detail becomes finer and finer, culminating in a series of shots that seem to zoom into the newsprint itself, revealing the infinitesimal dots that make up each letter of each word, as well as creating the impression of photographic reality. This microscopic detailing is carried over into the first shot of the film proper, which zooms in and out on a photo of a human eye, first as created by the dotted ink of a newspaper, then as molded by the equally small and equally unseen lines of a TV monitor. As the camera pulls away from what seems to be a televised image of Nicole Kidman's eye, the telltale lines of the TV set disappear, creating a smoother image that seems to be reality. The message is clear: although the image may appear smooth and life-like, it is still mediated, still removed from reality by some distance.

This concern with the media, with the televised or mediated image, flows throughout the film, in both form and content. The film is comprised entirely of mediated presentations of Suzanne's story, which is fractured chronologically and related through the anecdotes, interviews, and testimonials of those who knew her in various ways. Suzanne herself opens the film with an extreme closeup on her face against a blank white background, speaking directly into the camera and telling parts of her story, quite literally a talking head, but this is only the most obvious of the film's nods to television aesthetics. Every character in the film speaks directly to the camera at one point or another, addressing an unseen interviewer or news camera. The cause of all this media attention is, as the credits hint, the murder of Suzanne's husband Larry (Matt Dillon) by her teenage lover James (Joaquin Phoenix). Thus, Larry's sister (Illeana Douglas) speaks disgustedly of how the couple first met and got married, while both Larry's and Suzanne's parents appear on what seems to be a talk show of some kind, telling stories about the couple and being periodically applauded by the studio audience.

Suzanne herself also spends a large portion of the film on a TV screen, delivering her cheerful weather reports for the local cable channel, which she sees as only a first step towards a very successful career in the spotlight. Kidman gives a brilliant performance, submerging herself in Suzanne and managing to deliver even her most riotous lines without a hint of irony or self-awareness. This obliviousness allows the image-conscious Suzanne to speak, with all seriousness, of the idea that Gorbachev would still be in charge in Russia if only he had removed that "ugly purple thing" from his head. Kidman gets a great deal of closeup time, particularly during the interview-format white-screen segments, and she invests Suzanne with a wealth of tics and facial expressions that perfectly convey her character. Even the way she moves her mouth, the tightly controlled motion of her lips as she carefully enunciates each word, gives the impression of someone who is at every second trying to imagine how she would look on a TV screen. Suzanne is a uniquely focused person, someone who truly believes, as she says at the very beginning of the film, that "you aren't really anybody in America if you're not on TV," a prophecy that's all too resonant 13 years later, for obvious reasons.

In addition to the obvious pleasures of this film on its own merits — not only Kidman's stunning central performance, but the equally great turn by Phoenix as the awkward high school boy she seduces in order to kill her husband — To Die For is an interesting film to think of in light of Van Sant's other films. For one thing, it's perhaps the first hint of the fascination with Hitchcock that led to his later Psycho remake. The opening shots of the film, before the credits, are a series of establishing shots of small town buildings and settings, and they establish the reality of this town with a Hitchcockian eye for detail and atmosphere. They remind me of the placidly presented postcard-like establishing shots of The Trouble With Harry, with Hitch's autumnal New England reds and oranges replaced by wintry gray and white. This film is also the first trace of Van Sant's fascination with celebrity and the media treatment of violence, themes that flow, in more subdued ways, throughout his post-millennial "death trilogy." Think of To Die For as the documentary, chronicling the ways in which the media sensationalizes, sexualizes, and even celebrates violence, while the latter three films are the response to this status quo, draining the televised gloss from these tales of murder and self-destruction in order to focus on more prosaic realities. In this light, To Die For begins to seem like quite an important film to Van Sant's body of work, not at all a first foray into mainstream filmmaking but a first look at the cycles of violence and celebrity infecting our culture.

The film's ending provides perhaps the most trenchant and formally intriguing consideration of these themes on display here. Late in the film, with Suzanne out of the picture, the interviewers return to James and Lydia (Alison Folland), the young trailer park girl who assisted in the crime out of admiration for the strong-willed Suzanne. James has been interviewed periodically throughout the film in a visiting room in prison, where he is serving a life sentence. These interviews have been mostly conducted in close and medium shots, with a general tendency towards pulling back over the course of the film — the first is cut closely enough so as to obscure the fact that James is in prison. In the final scene with James, the camera pulls back quite a bit though, beyond even the boundaries of the room, in a rather artificial cutaway view that frames James sitting at a table in the center of the room, with black areas on either side of the room, leaving just a square of light in the center of the widescreen view. The impression is that the room itself has become a TV screen, broadcasting the image of James as the sad center of attention in this box, a celebrity in spite of himself. The final scene of the film, an interview with Lydia, is even more suggestive, as she comments on the irony that in the wake of these events, she is going to be appearing on talk shows and TV talking about Suzanne and James: "Now I'm the one that's gonna be famous. Suzanne would die if she knew." As Lydia speaks, the screen begins to divide into boxes, first presenting her in a split screen, then a Warholesque four cells, then more and more until there are dozens of tiny Lydias filling the screen. At this point, in each cell, a man walks forward and snaps a clapper board together signaling the end of the take and the end of the film, as the screen briefly flashes white.

This wonderfully metafictional ending is Van Sant's way of implicating his own work in the film's media satire, completing the cycle by calling into question the way all media images represent reality. Of course, all of this is not to forget that To Die For is also a very funny movie, often a startlingly funny one, especially in its unforgivingly brutal portrait of Suzanne. Van Sant has often incorporated subtle dark humor into his films, most notably of late in the mumbled dialogue and absurdist landscapes of Gerry and a few isolated scenes in Last Days, but nowhere else in his oeuvre has he indulged in such broad and pointed pitch-black comedy. This is a unique one-off for Van Sant, a commercial work that is nevertheless infused with his own obsessions, not at all the formulaic hack work that his Hollywood period is all too often dismissed as. It's a film very much deserving of reconsideration, both as a hilarious satire in its own right, and as a crucial part of Van Sant's body of work.


Marilyn said...

Ed - This was a wonderful piece. I'm not as intrigued by Van Sant's experiments as you are, but I agree that he is looking for new ways to express images. I think the incredible array of techniques he applied to To Die For is a film class in itself. He really did take established styles and turn them sideways, to amusing and startling effect. I particularly liked the quick-cut sex scenes shot from high above Kidman and Phoenix - a tease for the voyeuristic impulses of the audience.

DavidEhrenstein said...

An excelletn review of an unsung Van Sant.

Incidentally Gus met Buck Henry via their mutual love of golf.

reassurance said...

Excellent work, Ed. I actually just watched this on television a few days ago and was excited to see that you had written about it. I think it's overall rather successful, and above all, viscerally enjoyable. Kidman, Phoenix, Folland and (especially) Douglas are incredible, and I'm glad you placed this against his other works... because his Hollywood pictures are something I've never been able to grasp in a collective sense.

Shubhajit said...

Great review. You have indeed captured the nuances of the film.

Even though critics who are more into Van Sant's indie efforts, not all of his mainstream ventures are bad. In fact, despite what critics say (that it is too Hollywood), i liked Good Will Hunting. If possible do post a review of the movie.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comment, PA.

I really disliked Good Will Hunting, it barely seems like a Van Sant film. It probably doesn't help that I'm not usually a fan of Robin Williams, though he was perfect in Altman's Popeye and pretty good in the otherwise undistinguished Insomnia remake. It's been a while since I've seen GWH, but I can't say I'm in any rush to watch it again. I'd even rather revisit Van Sant's Psycho, which at least leaves me with things to think about when it's over.