If it sometimes seems as though the options available at the multiplex consist of one chunk of bland Hollywood tofu after another, take heart. It wasn’t that long ago that the local movie-house choices were the only choices if you lived outside a major urban center. While you once had to travel to New York City or Los Angeles to see the latest Truffaut or Cassavetes (or at least wait for the local college film society to get wise), much of the art-house universe is available for overnight rental on video.
This matters for work that theatrical distributors deem too dicey for broad release. Even a bona fide hit such as Il Postino, nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and delayed from video until Miramax could claim that it was the highest-grossing foreign film ever theatrically released in this country, stands to reach a far greater audience on tape. And for a demanding narrative like Robert Altman’s Kansas City, or a downright uncommercial opus like Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, video has become even more necessary, as a source of production funds and a gateway to viewers. Sometimes it’s the only gateway: Jarmusch recently blasted Miramax for giving his droll neo-Western a no-profile theatrical release.
Whether viewers at home will accept such atypical visions is another matter. Certainly, Il Postino stands to please renters who normally avoid subtitled films, and the tragic circumstances surrounding the movie — its star, the beloved Italian comedian Massimo Troisi, died of heart failure just hours after the film wrapped — add a human component to attract the curious or sentimental. But Il Postino is still a foreign film, moving at the languid, observant pace that may cause itchy Stateside audiences to reach for the fast-forward button.
If you can slow down your movie metabolism, though, you’ll be treated to a sweet little tale that stays just this side of preciousness. Il Postino, directed by England’s Michael Radford, follows a shy small-town postman (Troisi) as he gloms on to a local celebrity — the exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret) — and in the process uncovers a lyrical gift that allows him to woo a lollapalooza barmaid (Maria Grazia Cucinotta). The scenery is a vacation for the eyes, the poetry tantalizes the ears, and the only discordant note is a downbeat ending that simply feels wrong — it’s as though the filmmakers felt they had to uphold some European bum-out standard.
At least the downer that smacks you in the face at the end of Kansas City feels of a piece with the rest of the film. Throughout his long career, Robert Altman has created celluloid mosaics in which galleries of characters converge and implode. The approach can work brilliantly (Nashville) or not at all (Ready to Wear). Kansas City falls in the middle of the pack; as such, it’s worth seeing.
Set in the title town during the wide-open 1930s, the film has as its backdrop the round-the-clock jazz scene that was then birthing talents like Count Basie and Lester Young (played by contemporary young musicians in the film). Unfortunately, that backdrop is more interesting than the story out in front, in which a Jean Harlow wannabe (Jennifer Jason Leigh) kidnaps a rich man’s wife (Miranda Richardson) in an effort to spring her lowlife boyfriend (Dermot Mulroney) from the clutches of a black gangster (Harry Belafonte).
So the mosaic doesn’t cohere — but Bel- afonte and Richardson put up a good fight, and the percolating soundtrack sounds rich even through TV speakers. ”Listen to that music,” Belafonte says to Mulroney at one point. ”That’s Bill Basie. It’s part of the reason you’re not dead yet.” The same can be said for the movie.
Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man has an even flatter pulse — but then, that’s the way this neo-Beat New Yorker likes it. A six-gun saga filtered through a chilly bohemian lens, Dead Man is shot in spectral black and white and features big-name stars like Johnny Depp, Gabriel Byrne, and Robert Mitchum, as well as a growling rock score by Neil Young. But the charms of lower-budget Jarmusch films such as Stranger Than Paradise and Night on Earth — lovingly deadpan comedies in which hip losers slouch toward entropy — are replaced here by a studied listlessness.
Depp plays a bespectacled accountant from Ohio whom the whims of fate transform into a murderous Western outlaw. His affectless, zonked-out calm starts out as a joke; ultimately, it’s meant to look like grace. But if Dead Man comes close to finding the tone of Zen Americana it’s seeking, the rhythm falters a little too often. On one hand, Jarmusch is too much the SoHo ironist to truly commit to genre; on the other, his debunking of Western myths is saddled with as much closet-hippie romanticism as, say, Neil Young.
Still, there are beautiful, liquid moments here — and the sight of Iggy Pop playing a transvestite pioneer (or is that a pioneer transvestite?) is one I won’t soon forget. So maybe Jarmusch was right to grouse. He made the film he wanted, and any way, shape, or distribution channel that gets people to see it is worth the noise.
Il Postino: B
Kansas City: C
Dead Man: B-