The People vs. Larry Flynt (1997)

After being paralyzed by a would-be assassin in *The People vs. Larry Flynt*, the pornographer ponders his future: "We ought to move somewhere where perverts are welcome," he announces. In case anyone still had any doubts about where that might be, director Milos Forman (*Amadeus*) delivers the punchline, gliding his camera lovingly along the full, tattered length of the Hollywood sign. And lest anyone think that Flynt is actually as appealing as actor and hemp crusader Woody Harrelson, the film reminds them otherwise: the toad-like Flynt makes an appearance as an unsympathetic judge in the first of many court battles in *The People vs. Larry Flynt*, an audacious movie about the life of the trash porn publisher.

Flynt, child bootlegger, adult porn-meister, has led a rather too interesting life, but *The People vs. Larry Flynt* is as much a history of the First Amendment as a biography of the *Hustler* publisher. The underlying joke of Flynt’s career is that the more extreme Flynt became, the more whacked out, drug-addled, reckless and vulgar, the more he became a self-serving champion of free speech and First Amendment rights. As portrayed in *The People vs. Larry Flynt*, Flynt is the ultimate anti-hero, a man with a revolutionary soul and an adolescent mind, gleefully thumbing his nose at the establishment every chance he gets, and relentlessly testing the limits of the law. Flynt is only too happy to prove that you must take liberties to test liberties. That combination of prurience and rebellion reflects the divided soul of America, at war with itself over Puritanical mores and libertine desires, obeisance and insurrection.

*The People vs. Larry Flynt* takes the same subversive pleasure in taking liberties, tweaking the establishment, pointing out hypocrisy. This Larry Flynt isn’t *just* a sleazy scumbag, and the men who challenged him in court (Jerry Falwell, future S&L swindler Charles Keating) aren’t *just* community standard-bearers, but people with their own self-serving agenda as well. Forman, after living through both Nazi- and Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia, knows a thing or two about censorship, and it is censorship more than pornography that his film is about. Flynt’s crude style of porn is treated as a joke, an outgrowth of his hillbilly roots and admittedly lower-class tastes. The R-rated nudity throughout *The People vs. Larry Flynt* gradually becomes part of the background, challenging the viewer to ignore it as nothing more than the tacky lifestyle of a tacky man. Likewise, *Hustler* isn’t so much demonized for its exploitiveness as ribbed for its adolescent tastelessness, because the film hardly cares about *why* Flynt was persecuted and prosecuted. For a Hollywood film to object to tastelessness and the exploitation of women would itself be a laughable act of hypocrisy, even if Forman isn’t likely to be counted among the hypocrites. In one of the film’s most effectively subversive moments, Flynt stands before a huge screen, flashing alternating images of nude women and explicit violence, and asks which is more obscene. It’s a moment designed to question and undermine decades of media socialization, and it works brilliantly to confuse and confound.

*The People vs. Larry Flynt* also ignores the objections to Flynt voiced by feminists, including the outcry that has made *Hustler*’s infamous meat-grinder cover an anti-porn icon for decades. Instead, it focuses its scrutiny on the legal battles Flynt faced, which had nothing to do with feminism, but much to do with the religious right. If you lose sight of the fact that Flynt, whether he intended to or not, fought and won a battle for everybody’s freedom of expression (including feminists and the religious right), then you’ve missed the whole point of *The People vs. Larry Flynt*.

Instead of the women who hated Flynt, *The People vs. Larry Flynt* looks at the woman who loved him, Althea Leasure (Courtney Love, in a raw and affecting performance), Flynt’s wife, business partner and soul-mate. From their first meeting, when the bisexual Leasure was a 17 year old stripper, it is clear that Larry and Althea are a perfect match, and their relationship, right up until Leasure’s untimely AIDS-related death in 1987, is fascinating and unconventional. Though never prosecuted herself, Leasure was, as much as Flynt, responsible for the content of *Hustler*, and kept the magazine alive during Flynt’s brief fling with born-again Christianity (when he attempted to make *Hustler* an organ of religious porn). *The People vs. Larry Flynt* is at its most effective and surprisingly touching in its portrayal of the odd couple’s intense, complicated and devoted relationship, and it rightly recognizes that the role of women like Leasure in pornography is much too complex to discuss, or dismiss, with slogans and dogma.

Scripted by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (*Ed Wood*), *The People vs. Larry Flynt* takes the tragic, stranger-than-fiction and spontaneously ironic life of an outrageous American bottom-feeder and turns it into an exuberantly satirical, often hilarious, always fascinating lesson in law and disorder. Has there ever been a more entertaining defendant in any court, real or fictional? Hardly, but the film also keeps sight of the heavy price Flynt paid for his unwelcome crusade: imprisoned, paralyzed from the waist-down and finally, losing the love of his life, he does suffer for his sleazy art. Despite the comedy and high drama of *The People vs. Larry Flynt*, the film’s respect for Flynt ultimately remains uneasy: his unrestrained vulgarity makes Flynt more a joke than a hero, but his fight for the right to be vulgar, without restraint, in public, is heroic. We are reminded by Flynt that freedom has its price, however bad the aftertaste, and part of that price is to make a virtue of necessity, and abandon the necessity of virtue.


Mother (1997)

In Mother, writer-director Albert Brooks explores the psychological minefield of mother-child relationships, and proves what anyone who has ever heard a Jewish mother joke (the humorous foundation upon which Mother is built) probably already knows: the Jewish mother is the archetype of all motherhood, the mother of all mothers. Overbearing, loving, misunderstanding maternity is a multi-cultural phenomenon.

Brooks is John Henderson, a moderately successful science fiction author who, after his third divorce, decides that the root of his problem with women is his relationship with his mother. So he moves back into Mom’s cozy suburban home in Sausalito, determined to hash things out. His sweet and daffy mother Beatrice (Debbie Reynolds), doesn’t particularly want her middle-aged son there, so she pulls from her arsenal the simplest, most effective weapon known to motherhood: food. She attempts to feed her newly-arrived son all manner of ancient inedibles from her overstuffed freezer (why do you think they call it
iceberg lettuce?). Thus begins the first of many gentle skirmishes in Mother, a witty, lighthearted, domestic psycho-comedy.

For the most part, John is merely irritable, wearing a permanent expression of hang-dog exasperation as he and dear old mom fight about everything from peanut butter to parking. Reynolds, on the other hand, is wonderfully deft as the loving, honey-voiced mother whose sweet words are seasoned with a soupcon of acid. Beatrice isn’t even conscious of the constant butter-knife jabs she delivers, but her thin-skinned, tightly wound son is hypersensitive to them, and ready to pounce defensively at the slightest unintentional provocation. Not that he doesn’t dish it out as well; John’s most powerful weapon is to throw failure back in his mother’s face, proudly exhibiting himself as the miserable loser that he is just to prove that she was an inadequately supportive parent. Beatrice is seemingly oblivious, however, because, as a biological imperative, genetic compatibility breeds psychological incompatibility.

Somehow, it all comes off as affectionately comic rather than bitterly acrimonious in
Mother, thanks in large part to Reynolds’ ingenious, ingratiating performance. Reynolds is delightful as Beatrice, her performance so dead-on perfect that every word she utters can make you cringe with recognition. Yet she never overplays the poison, and her Beatrice is no Mrs. Bates; she comes off as a slyly dotty and well-meaning enigma, a woman who couldn’t stop saying the wrong things if she really, really tried -- that’s her job, she’s a mother.

In the absence of Beatrice,
Mother generally lapses into awkwardness, falling back on well-worn, obvious gags and incidental characters. That’s a fortunately small portion of the movie, which is for the most part concerned with offense and defense on the domestic front. When Reynolds and Brooks spar, Mother is at its subtle best, a war of wits, wiles and wills with two evenly matched opponents. The script by Brooks and Monica Johnson is loaded with shrewd observations, sly, sharp banter and a few Freudian revelations, as John eventually discovers that his mother is a lot more complex than he ever imagined.

Another filmmaker might have turned
Mother into a piously heartwarming bit of treacle, but not the acerbic Brooks. His Mother is sweet and sour, an engaging and likable film that cleverly turns the painfully familiar into something pungently funny.


Scream (1997)

There are rules to slasher movies. Conventions that must be followed. Things you must never, ever do. Turn up your nose and call them cliches, but if you want to live through the night, you must obey the rules.

Rule #1: Sex equals death. Have sex in a slasher movie, and your fate is sealed. You’ll see your own entrails before your fly is zipped. The only safe sex is no sex. Drugs and alcohol are also no-nos. The rules are strict, but they’re for your own good, really.

Rule #2: Adults will
never help you. That includes cops, parents, teachers, and other inept authority figures. They’re all clueless in the face of psychotic, supernatural evil, and they’re apparently never home anyway. If they show up at all, it’ll be during the final credits.

Rule #3: Psychotic killers always attack teenagers, mostly for the sheer ironic pleasure of slicing up someone who still believes in their own immortality. Teenagers are also easy targets because they are inherently incapable of escaping via the obvious and sensible routes, their adolescent minds being addled, primarily by thoughts of sex.

Rule #4: The boys all die (see Rule #1), and most of the girls die too, but one virginal girl always kills the monster and lives to see another sequel. Slasher movies are the first and last bastion of feminism in film.

Rule #5: Nobody in a slasher movie
ever knows any of these rules.

Wes Craven isn’t one to mess with a tried and true formula. He helped invent the cliches, in fact, with
A Nightmare on Elm Street, a splatter and ‘sploitation classic. In Scream, the standard slasher plot unfolds: a psychotic killer, wearing a creepy white mask that resembles Edvard Munch’s "The Scream" (one of many, many cultural references in this witty movie), is stalking the teenagers of a quiet suburban town. They die gruesome, graphically gory deaths. Here’s the twist, though: Scream violates Rule 5. These screaming teens haven’t been reared in a media vacuum like their dunderheaded precursors. They own VCRs, and they are all too aware of slasher conventions, reeling off movie refs like so many junior film critics. The killer even quizzes them on slasher classics. Does it help to know the rules? Of course not.

The terrorized teens of Woodsboro include Sidney (Neve Campbell), whose mother was brutally murdered a year earlier causing her to be sexually reluctant (a heroine in the making). Sid’s hard-up boyfriend is Billy (Skeet Ulrich), who bears a striking resemblance to Johnny Depp, who was fatally sucked into a bed in
A Nightmare on Elm Street. There’s also Tatum (Rose McGowan), her goofy brother Dewey (David Arquette), a numbskull sheriff’s deputy (he’ll be no help), and Randy (Jamie Kennedy), the horny, geeky video store clerk who tutors his peers on the ways of psychos, and recognizes early on that they’re all living a real-life slasher movie (how’s that for a kaleidoscope of reflexiveness?). “If this was a scary movie, I’d be the prime suspect,” Randy confesses. Tagging along is Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), a sleazy tabloid reporter who always manages to beat the cops to a murder scene.

It’s easy to scare the uninitiated, but the challenge faced by the modern slasher film -- the genre peaked, then petered out in the 80s -- is to scare an audience that knows the rules, knows exactly what to expect, and when to expect it.
Scream is scary and cathartic in all the right ways, but it also challenges the audience to a duel of wits and nerves. Craven and writer Kevin Williamson know you know, but they also know that a scary movie is like going down to the basement: you can convince yourself there’s nothing to be afraid of, but you’ll always run up the stairs with your heart pounding anyway. Craven exploits that autonomic fright mechanism even while he acknowledges it.

Scream is also bloody funny, taking every slasher convention, bleeding it dry, then adding a cheeky, viciously droll twist, a knowing wink to the audience, and just enough of a rule violation to unnerve the nerviest viewer. The killer does exactly the same thing to his hapless, seen-it-all-before victims, toying with them, letting them in on the joke before gutting them with a razor-sharp punchline. This killer takes his lumps in the process, because the savvy kids of Woodsboro, weaned on Halloween and Friday The 13th, always fight back, with blood-spattered slapstick consequences. It all works to undermine the only security left to the jaded slasher fan: the confidence that, thanks to years of watching these films, you could escape a psycho killer because you know exactly what not to do. Nothing sets off a psycho like the hubris of a know-it-all teen.

Scream is superb entertainment, a smart, witty film that’s more twisted than Norman Bates. Red herrings are as abundant as red Karo syrup, and the surprising climax simultaneously plays up and plays against all the conventions of this highly ritualized genre in a gleefully blood-soaked paean. Scream is the last word on the slasher genre, and Craven, who saw some of his best work bastardized in pro forma Nightmare sequels, gets the last laugh.


The Crucible (1996)

There’s a strikingly anachronistic scene at the beginning of The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s screen adaptation of his 1953 play: a group of teenage Puritan girls really let their hair down, dancing ‘round a burning cauldron, writhing, squealing, baring their breasts. An opening like that might have made the play a high school favorite instead of a chore, but it does more than appeal to prurient youth: it entangles The Crucible’s tale of 17th century witch trials in the modern world even more than the original play did. The orgiastic hysteria of this scene, like something out of modern horror films like The Craft and Carrie, is maintained throughout this chillingly resonant cautionary tale -- it electrifies this Crucible, charging the entire film with a gripping sense of dreadful, sex-fueled inevitability and doom.

Led by Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder), these are desperate, lovestruck girls, bewitched by little more than puberty, and performing forbidden rites for no more extraordinary reason than to conjure boys. Abigail has a darker purpose: her love is John Proctor, a married man with whom she has had an illicit affair. Abigail would call up the devil to destroy John’s pious wife Elizabeth, and so she does. When the girls are discovered at their proscribed dance, it sets in motion a riot of recrimination, false accusation, vengeance and mass hysteria which tears the town of Salem asunder.

Miller’s intricate crafting of
The Crucible is extraordinary. Double binds and vicious ironies are everywhere: those who confess to witchcraft are spared, while those who deny the accusations are hanged for witchcraft, because, of course, only a witch would lie. Truth, and even God, are subservient to conformity within the hypocritical boundaries of Salem. If the Devil has any power in Salem, it is the power of suggestion -- he lives in the minds of Abigail’s frightfully susceptible cohorts. Abigail’s spite, her schoolgirl vengeance is amplified by the believing screams of her hysterical co-accusers. Abigail is empowered by accusation, so the accusations escalate until she has the entire town in her grip, until the destructive force of all of society are hers to command and unleash.

Judge Danforth (Paul Scofield), presiding over the witch trials, is sinister hubris personified, a man determined, at any cost, to be the one to rid Massachusetts of the Devil. Convinced of his own authority, he also convinces himself that the nonsensical justice he ekes out is somehow logical -- he isn’t so much doing God’s work as satisfying his own ego, crushing men under his thumb just because he can. Thus, Salem’s only hope for a reasonable voice perjures himself, and knowingly entangles reason in a web of deceit and conceit. Scofield is brilliant in the role, bringing to the surface the miles of twisted hanging rope in Danforth’s soul.

Ryder is surprisingly forceful as angry, fiery Abigail. Her passion turns so easily to demonic, vengeful rage that it is easy to forget that Abigail is also a victim, the immature lover of a steadfast pillar of the community who now denies knowing her. Proctor is nonetheless still the heroic martyr of this
Crucible, and in Daniel Day-Lewis’s hands, he comes off as wounded and ultimately decent, a man whose faith in the truth is tragically misplaced. Joan Allen’s Elizabeth is the most poignant character here: she takes on the burden of John’s sin, accuses herself, in a touching confession, of inviting sin by keeping a "cold house."

Director Hytner (
The Madness of King George) maintains a steady, throbbing rhythm that banishes possible staginess in a play with this much antiquated, stately dialogue. This is a fiery Crucible, tense and dramatic, with bodies, minds and souls at war within individuals, and the individual at war with the mob.

The most astonishing aspect of Miller’s impeccable adaptation is the way in which this new
Crucible resonates with modern concerns. The McCarthy/HUAC witchhunts, which Miller effectively allegorized in his play, are as distant a memory for most as the Communist paranoia that fueled them. And while we may think ourselves more cynical and sophisticated now, the many topical parallels The Crucible touches on are like a laundry list of modern proofs of our collective gullibility. The credence given to child accusers is as troubling as the ease with which they are manipulated for some adult motive; likewise, the ease with which an accusation escalates into communal paranoia and hysteria, and media frenzy, is vividly realized. The parallels to modern trials against so-called Satanic day-care providers and parents, teenage vampire cults, and the like, are obvious. It is not so much the accusers, the vulnerable, frightened children who are exposed here; lies by themselves have no moral force until it is invested by a community of willing believers.

Equally forceful are Miller’s observations about modern scapegoating, about self-important and self-appointed keepers of community values who squash the vulnerable because they are easily squashed (and because they enjoy doing it), and a society that
wants to be told what to believe, what to desire, what soda to drink, what movies to see (by the way, see this movie). Salem needs the Devil, they actually want Satan in their midst, invite him into their hearts by keeping their cold, dark houses -- he’s the passion, the fire in their souls, the irrepressible within the repressed, the individual within the cold, lifeless community. There’s the final irony of The Crucible: we are, perhaps more now than when Miller first wrote his play, the mindless collective we fear, and in a treacherously twisted logic, the individual, the iconoclast, the alien, becomes the evil in our midst. No less than in 1953, this Crucible is a modern American masterpiece.