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The Cell**

How quickly are the mighty fallen these days! During the weekend of August 19-20, The Cell definitively eviscerated The Hollow Man, previously the number one box office hit in the country, and sent it diving all the way down to seventh place. Although I didn't enjoy watching The Cell much more than I did The Hollow Man, the reason for its triumph is easy to see. Directed by Tarsem Singh--who prefers to be called simply Tarsem--The Cell is a shrewdly calculated piece of filmmaking that is far more dramatically coherent than its now practically invisible competitor. Basically, the film is an almost retrograde crime thriller with a last minute rescue straight out of D,W. Griffith.  

Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) is a child psychologist working at a fancy neurospsychological institute which has developed a device that allows one person to wander around inside another person's brain. At the same time,  the serial murderer Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio) has been terrorizing the countryside, sexually abusing and horribly mutilating young women after abducting and killing them. When Carl unfortunately goes into a state of permanent catatonia at the moment the police discover and apprehend him,  a pathologist suggests to the FBI agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) the possibility of calling in the institute and letting Catherine make a tour of Carl's eminently twisted mind in order to find where he might have been holding his most recent victim, Julia Hickson (Tara Subkoff) . 

Although Catherine hesitates at first, the viewing of a video shot by Carl of his last crime makes her agree to go through with the experiment. Once inside, Catherine discovers a watery trail that links memories of  baptism in a stream to Carl's penchant for drowning his victims--and copulating with them after death in a bathtub by means of an elaborate gadget that would have delighted the divine Marquis--all by way of a pathologically abusive father, whose acts of violence against his juvenile son she also witnesses during her intracranial peregrinations.  After a series of peripeties which necessitate agent Novak joining Catherine inside Carl's skull, where it must be getting rather crowded by now, Novak finds out Julia's location and saves her from a watery demise, while Catherine, decked out as the Queen of the Angels in a rig that would be the envy of any aspiring male crossdresser, redeems the young Carl from his darker impulses.

Even before The Cell embarks upon its safari into the dark continent of Carl's psyche, it uses the experiments in which Catherine participates as a pretext for some psychedelically tinted subjective sequences that resemble nothing so much as a bargain basement imitation of the soggier parts of Federico Fellini's Julietta of the Spirits filtered through Alexander Jodorowsky's torpid El Topo. Unfortunately, once Catherine starts poking about in the musty recesses of the caroline consciousness, these episodes become more frequent--and more tiring. Tarsem, who has mainly worked making television commercials, apparently doesn't understand how cloyingly dull unadulterated fantasy can be, especially when it is stretched out the way he prolongs these episodes. And how much more so when the fantasy is manufactured out of the kitschy materials he has employed in The Cell!

Like an otherwise tasty if homely spice cake that has been ruined by a nauseatingly sweet frosting, The Cell is basically a reliable staple of the American cinema--a straightforward thriller--with a campy faux surrealist icing which nearly poisons it. Although the scene with Catherine as the Virgin Mary really takes the cake baked by Tarsem, the mise en scène in all of The Cell's flights of fancy is unspeakably vile--I doubt that freaks zonked out of their gourds in the balmiest days of the 1960's could have invented anything to surpass the tasteless stupidity of these chromo hallucinations. In fact, attempts to reproduce a dreamlike state in movies by resorting to crude phantasmagoria are usually disastrous. Where directors like Hitchcock or Buñuel evoked dreams almost allusively in Vertigo or The Young and the Damned to great effect, commercial productions have laid on their oneirism with a trowel--and The Cell is no exception. Yet what does such a heavily theatrical excess of representation signify except the repression of  unconscious desire? 

Ironically, if all the muck were scrapped off, it would still leave a quite edible confection. Although the ingredients of this cake have been patently recycled for the zillionth time and although I fear some day a  doctoral candidate in film studies will write a dissertation on the sources of The Cell--the contribution of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho is particularly evident--the recipe holds up surprisingly well. If the director put his best efforts into the dreck which accounts for about half of the film's running time, he has had far better luck when he shifts into a more pedestrian and less oneiric mode. Judged by traditional standards , The Cell is a respectable, if minor, specimen of the thriller genre--and that is all that keeps it from being the sort of creation intelligent cooks prudently consign to the trash can rather than trying out on unsuspecting guests.

The screenplay by Mark Protosevich, although it supplies quite a colorful story line for The Cell, doesn't offer much for the performers in the way of characterization or dialogue. Brian Hayden, who contributed a user comment to The Internet Movie Database, referred to Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn's "C average acting ability." In the case of Lopez, I think the criticism is valid; in that of Vaughn, I'm not so sure. He certainly doesn't give his role any of the idiosyncratic angularity David Duchovny succeeded in bringing to Fox Mulder, but under the circumstances he was perhaps wise not to set himself up for an invidious comparison.  On the other hand, the crime thriller is a highly conventionalized genre which has usually thrived on flat rather than rounded characterizations, and I wasn't as bothered by the shortcomings of Lopez--who gives a better than average performance in Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight--and Vaughn as I would have been if they had appeared a more dramatically challenging vehicle.

Two other performances deserve a special note for quite different reasons. Vincent D'Onofrio does not achieve the effect of depraved innocence that Anthony Perkins conveyed so powerfully in his portrayal of Norman Bates in Psycho, but he is quite striking both as the killer with the soul of a tortured child--echoes of Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang's M--and as Carl's super-alter ego whom Catherine encounters on her journeys into the former's schizophrenic cerebrum. I also want to say a word about Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who gives a very convincing performance as the scientist who supervises Catherine's experiments. I don't know to what coincidence it is owing that the last time I saw a Black performer in a featured role, the person was playing a psychiatrist--Joe Morton as Dr. Drayton in Robert Zemeckis' What Lies Beneath. I have no illusions that Hollywood is likely to open up its doors and start giving starring roles to talented African-American performers as scientists and doctors, but at least parts like these are somewhat different from what has usually been offered to them. It changes the landscape a little.

The Cell is  a film guaranteed to blow fuses, and it certainly blew the fuse of Kenneth Turan, the lead movie reviewer for The Los Angeles Time, who in his review (8/18/00) described The Cell as "a torture chamber film about a man who tortures women that puts viewers through as much misery as the people on the screen. In the year 2000, that's entertainment." While I respect Turan, I feel there are two points that should be made here. First of all, I think this is a classic case of overreaction. Although The Cell is hardly more offensive--just more pretentious--than other movies of the same kind like Strangeland,  Turan has apparently decided to haul it  into court as a scandalous testimonial of everything that offends him in contemporary movies--"At its hollow core, 'The Cell' is, regrettably, only the latest example of the push-the-envelope school of filmmaking that lives...only to go where others haven't been before." But isn't this a little like an overwrought school teacher picking out one kid to make an example of when he has a whole room of unruly brats?

Secondly, as the last quote might indicate, an apocalyptic tone of what-are-movies-coming-to  dominates the article. Yet Turan of all people should know that sensationalism has played a conspicuous role in the history of American movies from year one. A broad vein of sensationalism figures prominently in the work of D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, and Erich Von Stroheim, the three great masters of the silent cinema--and DeMille continued to profitably mine that vein right up to the end of his career. Only someone who was hopelessly naive or ignorant of the history of motion pictures in this country--neither of which is true of Turan--could imagine for an instant that an age of innocence has ever existed on the American screen. The Cell may be more crudely salacious than the sort of stuff purveyed by Griffith in Birth of Nation or DeMille in The Cheat, but it can trace its pedigree right back to works like those. 

Realistically, as I think Turan should realize, what is really horrifying in a movie has far more to do with implicit than explicit content. No disgustingly visceral images like those The Cell proffers ever show up in Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, but in back of every shot of blond Nazis happily storming through the streets of Nuremberg lurks the spectacle of the Holocaust. Similarly, the scene in Birth of a Nation where the renegade Black soldier stalks Flora Cameron (Mae Marsh) with the intention of raping her or the one in The Cheat in which the Oriental played by Sessue Hayakawa brands the white society woman who refuses to sleep with him are far more horrifying in their implications than the grossest scenes in The Cell. What still haunts the grayish orthochromatic images of Birth of a Nation and The Cheat is the persecution and physical destruction of people of color in the United States just as what haunts Triumph of the Will is the virtual annihilation of European Jewry. 

Yet I respect Turan's position far more than I do that of the indefatigable Stephen Farber, who has just contributed a piece entitled "Should Movies Aspire to Moral High Ground?" to The Los Angeles Time Calendar (8/22/00). According to Farber, "The content of 'The Cell' is distasteful, but its visual style is stunning." What a polished antithesis ! The "distasteful"  content versus the "stunning" visual style. Well, perhaps he meant "stunning" in the sense of being knocked unconscious by a falling object. If he keeps on like this, Farber is going to carry the miserable form-content dichotomy to new lows. Remember folks, this was the guy who denounced the reference to the Holocaust in X-Men as "cheesy."

Not so long ago, some advocacy groups for mental health patients attacked Bobby and Peter Farrelly's Me, Myself & Irene as discriminatory because of Jim Carrey's portrayal of a character suffering from split personality. But I think anyone would have to be highly obtuse or politically correct to the max to imagine that Me, Myself & Irene is making any kind of statement about schizophrenia, pro or con. 

In fact, schizophrenia is not split personality, and Carrey's split personality as Charlie/Hank--which owes more to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde than to Dr. Freud or any other psychotherapist--is simply a plot device like that of the identical twins in Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night,  a device that is both an age old device of comedy and one which taps into the same questions of identity at work in the Farrelly's movie. But The Cell is picking up on some very heavy issues such as child abuse, severe mental illness and  extreme forms of deviant behavior like necrophilia and using them as a pretext for an orgy of sadism and paranoia. I am by no means arguing that the groups that were wrong before about Me, Myself & Irene should now go after The Cell, but I do think the movie's manipulative, sensationalistic use of psychopathology raises some questions that are well worth raising.

In no way to its credit, The Cell tries to camouflage its bloody bacchanalia by inserting a lot of pseudo-scientific hocus-pocus into the mouth of Catherine, particularly in her encounters with Peter, an ex-prosecuting attorney with little tolerance for lawbreakers of any kind. But this limp apologia is an insult to anyone's intelligence. I do not believe that The Cell is going to give birth to future sociopaths but I believe even less that it is going to contribute to an understanding of seriously deranged individuals like Carl or serve as a warning of the dangers of child abuse.  I thought it was arrogantly nonsensical for Dee Snider to claim that he made Strangeland--a film about a sexual predator which has a number of striking affinities with The Cell--in order to help parents protect their teenage daughters from the wiles of perverts, and I find the similar claim which The Cell is self-protectively, if tacitly making of performing a service by displaying its chamber of horrors to the paying public equally obnoxious.

Nor should anyone object that Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers committed the same sin of justifying its exploitation of violence by passing it off as a sermon. Stone's film is not necessarily any more ethically responsible nor enlightened than The Cell, but there is a important difference in strategy. Where Oliver Stone primarily aimed at giving the audience a purge in Natural Born Killers, Tarsem seems intent on masturbating its brain cells--no doubt, in hope of discovering that one special cell indicated by the title which will make the viewers all simultaneously groan in ecstasy. 

Stone wants to rouse the audience from its ideological slumber and he employs all the traditional resources of snarling satire in order to do so. But it is one thing to subject an audience to shock therapy, and another thing to alternately massage its libido and tickle its morbidly voyeuristic curiosity about grisly crimes of violence. If Tarsem wants to rake up a pile of bucks making scabrous gross-out epics, he can do so with my blessing--only don't let him pretend to be doing us all a good deed.

Like most films which go trawling in the murky waters of the American collective unconscious, The Cell manages to scrape up a more than fair share of detritus from the bottom, whose study I gladly relinquish to feminists, myth hunters, and amateur psychoanalysts. The juxtaposition of the white outfit resembling a bridal gown--in which Catherine makes her first and last appearances in the movie--with the copious spilling of blood in The Cell might well signify a fantasy of defloration like the one  that possibly lies beneath the surface of Robert Zemeckis' latest movie. But I feel not the least interest in exploring the question. Probably the worst response to The Cell is to take it seriously at all--that's paying the picture a compliment it doesn't deserve. 

Check out these other new reviews:

Alice and Martin

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E-mail Dave: daveclayton@worldnet.att.net

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