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8 MM

Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 26 February 1999

  Directed by Joel Schumacher.

Starring Nicolas Cage, Joaquin Phoenix,
Myra Carter, Anthony Heald, Ryan Powell,
Amy Morton, James Gandolfini, Peter Stormare,
Chris Bauer and Catherine Keener.

Written by Andrew Kevin Walker.

This past week, our local newspaper ran an editorial deploring the recent, rather luridly advertised Fox-TV specials that seem to have single-handedly revived the old "shockumentary" genre. But it also took a moment to report that "more than one adult" had informed their auspices about being "aghast" at the "over-the-top violence" seen in Payback, which said adults "had expected to be a typical, genial, Mel Gibson shoot-em-up". (Although what exactly a "genial shoot-em-up" would be is hard to imagine.) What a perfect time, then, to release a film like 8 MM.

Private investigator Tom Welles (Nicolas Cage) is raking leaves in the front yard of the happy home he shares with his wife (Catherine Keener) and infant daughter, when he is summoned to the residence of a recently departed, very rich and, above all, prestigious man, whose widowed wife (Myra Carter) and lawyer (Anthony Heald) tell him that they found a reel of film among the contents of the late man's private safe. It is, apparently, unpleasant. Could Tom have a look at it? Tom goes into an adjoining room, and turns on the projector. It is a short film, showing a young girl who is taken before the camera by a burly man wearing an S/M mask. Knives are produced. We only get glimmers of what happens next. Instead, we see the reactions Tom has while he's watching what is shown. He winces. He shutters. His whole body seems to be affected adversely by it. He acts as if he is having a recurrence of incipient malaria. Afterwards, impeccably composed in speech, manner, and dress, he confirms that he will verify if this "atrocity", as the reel of film is called, is genuine.

The screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, who previously wrote Seven, is again concerned with the scarring effect that evil and heinous acts have on people -- in this case, the world of "extreme" pornography, where people are brutalized for pleasure. And not just the people being filmed: apparently, nothing in Tom Welles' previous "surveillance" work has prepared him for this.

Tom may use a smooth, placating, seemingly caring manner with his clients and contacts, but he is also revealed as being not entirely above reproach, himself. He pilfers. He manipulates. He is duplicitous. He is shown telling people what they think they should hear so that he will get the information he needs. He is not entirely straight with his wife, either, concealing information from her, disappearing for long periods of time. And he even appears to be shielding himself. When a convict he speaks to asks him for a cigarette, Tom won't give him one, as if he were afraid that he might pick up something from him through physical contact. The film could be seen as not just about a missing girl, but about what happens when Tom's shielding mechanism finally breaks down?

Nicolas Cage gives Tom some fine, sometimes even delicate, delineations of feeling; in the scenes he appears in with Amy Morton, who plays the mother of the girl (Ryan Powell) Tom is seeking, there is a haunting, desolate quality to them. Cage depicts the shifts in Tom's character, as he descends into more seamier environs, with deftness, but, eventually, the movie sends him bulldozing through scenes, and by the time he turns brutal and acts no better than the thugs and other gruesome types he's been dealing with, we feel we've lost all contact with him.

Joel Schumacher would like to be a "serious" filmmaker, but, as with his previous "serious" films -- Falling Down, about urban rage, and A Time to Kill, about racial injustice -- he ends up exploiting the very thing he's decrying against. So, we are taken on a tour through various sex shops, sleaze merchant offices, dens of assignation, open-area clubs, and what look like subterranean grottos where morbidly forbidding or wildly eccentric peddlers sell tapes of various types of "extreme" pornography out of cardboard boxes. I found one encounter where Tom dickers with a tall man with long blond hair, an Austrian accent, and outfitted in a bustiér and a leather thong, who talks to Tom while vigorously working at a part of his upper chest anatomy with one hand, to be particularly cute. Along with the film's generally dark, dingy-dishwater look, some of the scenes struck me as being the grimiest-looking I can recall seeing since Joe Spinell and William Lustig's sensitive art film, Maniac, back in 1981. It's a combination freak show and cautionary lesson, and will undoubtedly be the subject of conversation for days, around here, among retirees who stumble in and out of matinees of this flick. (Mychael Danna's music score, which ingeniously uses East Indian and Arabic music influences, inadvertently goes towards giving these sequences an even more exotic, alien quality to them.)

Tom's travels, which send him from the East Coast to the Los Angeles demimonde, cause him to meet up with Max, who is given a wonderful portrayal by Joaquin Phoenix (everything in the film perks up a bit when Phoenix is on- screen), and who also has the thankless task of delivering such homilies as, "You're going to see things that you can't 'un-see', which stick in your head", and, "You dance with the devil, the devil changes you". Max initially came to Hollywood to become a rock musician, and ended up clerking in a sex magazine store, where he perfunctorily pushes boxes of "battery-powered electric vaginas" to customers at the check-out stand. He also reads Truman Capote, hidden inside the cover of a dirty book. (Otherwise, it would look bad for business.) Max has his own "contacts" who could help Tom find who made the snuff film and, hence, killed the girl, and he becomes Tom's Virgil during his journey through the netherworld.

Their sojourn takes them to the covert business place of an impresario named Dino Velvet, whose offices look like an art installation, and who is played, with arachnoid, Delsartian gestures by Peter Stormare. (The only performer I know of who shuttles between Ingmar Bergman projects -- Bergman's stage production of "Hamlet", and his film In the Presence of a Clown -- and movies like The Lost World and Armageddon.) Dino does "custom-made" videos for

special clients; his work is also supposed to be artful enough to have developed a serious following. "What I could do with a face like yours...," Dino tells Tom at the end of their first meeting -- during which Tom, of course, shrinks from the touch of Dino's Balinese dancer-like fingers.

From here on, the finer points of Tom's character change -- which, in the end, leave him a shattered man -- are lost in the film, which is more interested in showing how Tom becomes so filled-up with outrage and revulsion at the people he's seen, what they do and how they do it, that the only way out for him is to take justice into his own hands. Is the film telling us that we should go out and kill all the pornographers? I think not, despite the fact that we have laws in place for that, for a very good reason. Joel Schumacher, rather, is more interested in "looking" than anything else, and the film seems have nothing more loftier on its mind than getting a rise out of presenting, then playing around with, lurid and provocative material.

Seven had the advantage of being told from the point of view of a seasoned police detective, played by Morgan Freeman, who saw that what Brad Pitt's tortured, goaded character did at the end of that film was wrong, and that his life would be irreparably changed as a result of it. 8 MM. gives Tom a redemptive note, but it is, quite frankly, something of a sop. He receives reassurance that what he's done was right. That, I think, I would take exception to, if the film's conclusion didn't seem so unconvincing, and the film, on a whole, ultimately dismissable. Unless it inspires someone in the audience to go seek out and look at some of those "TOO EXTREME" videos that are only glimpsed at in the film, and, then, afterwards, go out and kill some pornographers for the sport of it. A new national pastime is born!

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