Transformer

Indie queen Lili Taylor flips the script

The first time I saw Lili Taylor's rare, changeling face, she was crooning terrible songs in the key of "Joe" in Cameron Crowe's first and best movie, Say Anything. Typically, Crowe's heroine was the blankly beautiful Ione Skye; I pleaded with John Cusack's Lloyd Dobler to drop the dreary good girl for the tenderhearted gnome of a pal--Taylor's Corey--who would surely freak him into an existence outside the lines. He didn't. I figure that out there in some (better) parallel world, Corey and Lloyd are pogoing to "White Riot" with their kids, limbs loose and faces creased with laughter.

In that good place, Taylor's The Addiction would be the cheesy vampire movie to see instead of Interview with the Vampire. Her Girls Town would offer a more popular teen-girl makeover than The Princess Diaries. And the most difficult and brilliant of the film school auteurs would write parts for Taylor and not for Sheryl Lee, Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman. But then "rebel" (read: nerdy) male artists--including Lloyd and Cameron--usually want to mess with the kind of beauty once off-limits to them, and Lili Taylor's androgynous beauty is more prescient than classic.

Not one for the Factory: Lili Taylor in 'I Shot Andy Warhol'
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Not one for the Factory: Lili Taylor in 'I Shot Andy Warhol'

Consequently, when the Walker presents "Lili Taylor: Independent Spirit," a month-long retrospective featuring eight great Lili Taylor performances, one is hard-pressed to find a great movie therein. (Taylor will appear in person at the Walker to review her career with critic B. Ruby Rich on Saturday at 8:00 p.m.)

Take Factotum, the Minnesota-made film based on Charles Bukowski's writings, which receives its Twin Cities premiere this Friday (7:30 p.m.). Taylor, a woman who can smoke a cigarette in a thousand telling ways, plays the alcohol-ravaged, mean-mouthed girlfriend of the alcohol-ravaged, mean-mouthed protagonist (Matt Dillon). And she's nearly unrecognizable--the full lips pulled tight and down, the soft hair a brittle mane, the eyes hard and dull yet knowing. Taylor fights against clichés to make the character's shape awkwardly singular--even in her body, which is stringy, poochy, and sexy. Watching her in Factotum, I realize that cheap sluts are usually played as "fallen"; Jan looks as though she has never known "up" and suspects it's overrated. As for the rest of the film: The location scout certainly deserves praise.

Of course, Factotum director Bent Hamer is no Emir Kusturica. Then again, Kusturica's Arizona Dream (February 18 at 7:30 p.m.) is no Time of the Gypsies. The Sarajevo-born director's 1993 American venture--with Jerry Lewis; Eskimos; and a three-way with Johnny Depp, Taylor, and Faye Dunaway--is almost hilariously fraught with meaning, some of it overdetermined, some of it as elusive as the flounder that keeps floating past. Taylor's twitchy Grace locates solid ground amid the chaos in two passionately resonant scenes accessorized with a gun. As for the rest of the film: Depp looks very pretty.

Abel Ferrara has made a couple of crappy movies and at least one masterpiece; The Addiction (February 11 at 9:30 p.m.) is neither. Released in 1995, a year after Tom Cruise's gothfest, it is cruelly funny where Interview was slackly glamorous. Indeed, Anne Rice's Lestat would probably get a kick out of the transformation of Taylor's earnest philosophy grad student into a Kierkegaard-quoting killing machine--it certainly gives me the willies. While Ferrara pushes abstract connections between academia and vampirism, Taylor concentrates on making a swell pulp fiction, maxing her body out on both abstinence and excess. At once ugly and sensual, she's convincingly dangerous even if the theory isn't.

It's tempting to claim that Taylor has done her best work for female directors--women inspired by her mutability and not on the lookout for stay-pressed icons. But then there's Mary Harron's I Shot Andy Warhol (February 11 at 7:30 p.m.). A portrait of protofeminist Valerie Solanas, author of The S.C.U.M. Manifesto and failed assassin of Warhol, Harron's 1996 film at first appears up to the task of balancing its protagonist's uncommon (non)sense. Part Mick Jagger, part street urchin, and all ADD, Taylor's Solanas spouts penetrating witticisms and potty talk indiscriminately; she's a riveting mess, and Harron makes it clear that had she been a man, she would have been revered instead of patronized and ridiculed. But the closer that Solanas and Harron get to Warhol's scene, the more static all the parties become. Instead of critiquing the splitting of beauty from politics, art from political content, the movie gets mired in that division. It stops moving, as does Taylor's performance.

Jim McKay's Girls Town (February 9 at 7:30 p.m.) presents a manifesto of a simpler vein: It follows three girlfriends in a working-class neighborhood as they attempt to resist the day-to-day denigrations of low expectations, date rape, and abusive boyfriends. If the empowerment theme feels a little belabored by the end, McKay encouraged improvisatory invention, and it's a pleasure to watch these distinctly nonprocessed teens tangle their talk into a springy net. Taylor's baggy-panted B-girl, bangs curled and baby on hip, represents one of her most startling transmutations--believe her or not. (I find her heart-wrenching.)

Perhaps because Taylor is almost always cast as a talker, she seems most striking to me when she is quiet. No director has explored Taylor's nonverbal expression as much as Nancy Savoca, who cast her as an idealistic would-be folksinger in 1991's Dogfight (February 10 at 7:30 p.m.) and as an idealistic would-be nun in 1993's Household Saints (February 15 at 7:30 p.m.). In both, Taylor plays an ugly woman who expands into beauty, whether it's the loosened afterglow of postcoital satisfaction or the incandescent beam of religious conviction. I prefer the first performance, in part because Household Saints grinds at the pace of a Senate hearing.

Taylor relates her journey in Dogfight--from awkward date tortured in early '60s fashion to confident and principled rule-breaker--via the set of her shoulders, the tension around her eyes. And River Phoenix, as a callow Marine experiencing unexpected yearnings, physically mocks and tantalizes her in a complicated skirmish of yielding. For all its amateurish montage and soundbite politics, Dogfight represents Taylor's one great (little) movie. (And in this I include Short Cuts, which is not Taylor's movie to carry--and not holding up well over time, either.) The greatness of Dogfight may lie in the fact that, with Phoenix, Taylor has a combatant up to her challenge, one as committed as she is to fooling with gender and enacting transformation. Thanks to Savoca as well, Dogfight tracks a meeting of subjects, neither one of them the distanced symbol of something lost or escaped from: partners, as they must be, in change.

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