Films

Romantic divides

Three directors tackle interracial sex, clerics in a love triangle, and incest

Brian D. Johnson April 17 2000
Films

Romantic divides

Three directors tackle interracial sex, clerics in a love triangle, and incest

Brian D. Johnson April 17 2000

Romantic divides

Films

Three directors tackle interracial sex, clerics in a love triangle, and incest

Brian D. Johnson

“What I really want to do is direct.” It’s a familiar mantra, and here are three movies from three directors with very different ideas about what it means. James Toback, a veteran of the old “New Hollywood”—he wrote The Gambler (1974) and Bugsy (1991)—has shot Black and White as a savagely contemporary, semi-improvised riff on white kids infatuated with black hip-hop artists in New York City. Actor Edward Norton, a product of the new New Hollywood, makes his directing debut with Keeping the Faith— a strangely old-fashioned romantic comedy about a rabbi and a priest. Finally, Tim Roth, another hot actor directing for the first time, offers The War Zone, a searing drama about father-daughter incest. All three movies have something to say—about race, religion and abuse, respectively. And all three directors have an attitude towards Hollywood. Toback gives it the finger, Norton strikes an awkward compromise, and Roth—well, Roth practises a kind of hard-core English realism that is about as far from Hollywood as rugby is from American football.

Black and White is a profane, satirical and provocative look at confused racial identity in America. From the opening scene, which shows two white teenage girls and a black man having sex standing

against a tree in Central Park, Toback aims to be incendiary. His self-destructing script offers a makeshift plot—a blackmailer (Ben Stiller) bribes a college basketball player to mount a sting operation against a hip-hop gangster. But in a sprawling collage reminiscent of Nashville, Toback throws actors into the ring to improvise with non-actors, and cuts his vérité footage with the same jagged rhythms as the sound track—performed by members of the Wu-Tang Clan, who also star in the movie.

The casting is diabolical. Supermodel Claudia Schiffer plays a cold-blooded an-

thropologist writing a thesis about the cosmetics of racism while betraying one black man for another. Brooke Shields is a vacuous videographer shooting a documentary about white teens who have adopted black culture; a droll Robert Downey Jr. gads about as her gay husband. And boxer Mike Tyson steals the movie in a devastating cameo: after Downey’s character keeps hitting on him, he explodes with a ferocity that could not have been scripted. Downey and Tyson were both on parole during the shoot, and their exchange is the highlight of a movie that lives for the moment: a molotov cocktail of sex and race that picks up where Spike Lee left off.

Keeping the Faith is more formulaic fare although it, too, is set in New York and features Ben Stiller in a black leather jacket. This time he’s playing a rabbi instead of a rounder. It’s odd that Norton, who has honed his talent in such edgy dramas as Primal Fear and Fight Club, should make his feature debut with a high-concept comedy— an extended riff on a priest-rabbi joke. But the movie is not as fluffy as its publicity would suggest. Most of the pratfalls used for the trailer, such as the priest catching on fire and dousing himself in holy water, whiz by in an early montage, as if tacked on to appease the studio. At the heart of the movie is an engaging story of a love triangle involving two progressive religious leaders and a workaholic executive (Jenna Elfman). The problem is, Norton can’t seem to make up his mind whether he’s making Jules and Jim, Manhattan or Sister Act.

The War Zone is ruthlessly consistent from start to finish. Adapted by Alexander Stuart from his own 1989 novel, it tells the quietly harrowing story of a middle-class family that has moved from London to the Devon countryside. Everything appears normal. Mom (Tilda Swinton) is pregnant with her third child, and although she gives birth in a car crash on the way to the hospital, the family happily survives. But then the moody 15-year-old, Tom (Freddie Cunliffe), catches a distressing glimpse of his 18-year-old sister, Jessie (Lara Belmont), with their father.

Drawing natural performances from his first-rate cast, Roth combines intimate realism with the lyrical sweep of the Devon coast. The drama builds to a horrific act of incest in a ruined bunker by the cliffs—a scene that perhaps goes too far. The War Zone is not for the faint of heart. But in portraying the meltdown of a nuclear family in its full complexity, Roth shows that he is as powerful a director as he is an actor. E3