Never having been a great admirer of Jean-Luc Godard, aging daddy of the French nouvelle vague, I was rightly suspicious with his showering praise on the little-known Jon Jost, naming the latter the current best among America's independent directors. Given the source, it is certainly a dubious tribute, as complimentary as a veteran streetwalker's salute to a new strumpet on the strip. That said, I'm pleased to report that Jost's paean to New York City's tug-of-war between Darwinistic capitalism and Platonic poetics, All the Vermeers in New York, exceeds expectations. The film may be rather hollow at its center, but it is also formally beautiful and visually quite arresting, the work of a craftsman rather than an artist of pedigree.
The first uncomfortable sign in Jost's film -- taking its lead from the perilous likes of Godard, Warhol, Jaglom, and Cassavetes -- is the absence of writing credit. This flies squarely in the face of the now unconventional wisdom proposed by such disparate screenwriting activists as Gore Vidal and Larry McMurtry, whose contention it is that no matter how auteurish a director's fancy may be, the inspiration inherent in all cinema is the writer's. Jost's semi-improvisational storytelling is a considerable obstacle in All the Vermeers in New York -- but how could it be otherwise? It's a skeleton of a story.
In fact, as opposed to a conventionally linear narrative, we're asked to witness insufficiently drawn characters barely interacting with Jost's exquisitely captured and controlled New York environment. Atmosphere is placed at a premium in this film. The message is less clear: Clearly Jost sees the arts and material gain are dichotomous entities that, to borrow briefly from Hegel, synthesize in order to create a new ideal. Among the protagonists, there is Mark (Stephen Lack), the stockbroker, whose world of buying and trading we glimpse early on and who provides a jarring counter-rhythm to his love of Vermeer paintings at the Metropolitan Museum. His foil is the French actress, Anna (Emmanuelle Chaulet, who appeared in Eric Rohmer's Boyfriends and Girlfriends). Her fierce concentration evidenced while gazing at a work by Vermeer at the museum (where they meet) captivates Mark, and their relationship has a kind of poignance. Mark believes Anna to be the incarnation of Vermeer's women -- the notion vaguely recalls Aschenbach and Tadzio in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice -- but his vision, and their affair, is impossible.
There are fringe characters: Some are comic, such as the gruff painter who peddles his work to a gallery -- demanding an outrageous advance -- and a predatory, rich woman who buys art and holds forth at the gallery on its monetary/aesthetic value. Some are affectingly deflated, such as Anna's struggling-artist roommates. And yet the strongest impressions generate from inanimate objects -- the paintings, naturally, but also the becomingly serene gallery showrooms and museum halls where the bulk of this brief introspective film takes place.
The photography (like the editing, by Jost) is ineluctably haunting. Colors are rich and the pacing is stately. But ultimately, All the Vermeers in New York is something of a curate's egg, enticing and exciting only in direct proportion to whatever part you happen to sample. Jost relies completely on subtext, but as his actors have been reduced to hesitant -- and often not terribly adept or creative -- improvisors, the resulting stasis seems unduly barren. And some of Mark's drivelly reinterpretations are truly mouth-opening. When he gushes about Vermeer's women holding an eternal secret within the rectangular frames where they reside, you ask yourself whose vision is more impaired, Mark's or Mr. Magoo's. (Vermeer's pale women are mysterious, but no more attractive to this viewer than a Dutch dairy maid yellowing with jaundice.) Nonetheless, Jost is a director of finish and personality, and this film, his most generously financed to date, even if auctorially irresponsible, evinces more sheen than Martin and Charlie put together. (Not that this is saying very much, of course.)
Now fasten yo' seat belts, 'cause here comes Mo' Money. First and foremost, let us thank the Almighty, in whatever movie-studio office he reigns out there in Tinseltown, that a screenplay for this movie does exist, because a more hastily assembled and putrid product would be impossible to prove without the incriminating evidence in writing. The credit goes to Damon Wayans, the most ubiquitous member of the dreaded Wayans dynasty -- the Osmonds of the Nineties -- and the star of Mo' Money. It is without exception one of the most execrable ghetto pics yet released, and the most unwatchable performance by Damon, that bald and mustached coxcomb, since he took leave from In Living Color to promote his hypertrophic ego on a 35mm screen. Not surprisingly, though, the imbecile audience -- black and white -- loved it at the promotional screening I attended last week.
But that's the culture of the age: Mo' Money and mo' dingleberries.
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ALL THE VERMEERS IN NEW YORK
Directed by Jon Jost; with Emmanuelle Chaulet, Stephen Lack, Grace Phillips, Roger Ruffin, and Katherine Bean.
Opens Friday at the Alliance Film/Video Project.
Directed by Peter MacDonald; written by Damon Wayans; with Damon Wayans, Stacey Dash, Joe Santos, John Diehl, Marlon Wayans, and Almayvonne.