Shooting Stars

I Shot Andy Warhol

Uptown Theatre, starts Friday

Dead Man

Lagoon Cinema, starts Friday

SO-CALLED "WARHOL mania" (per Interview) is such that the title alone seemed to earn I Shot Andy Warhol and star Lili Taylor loads of advance hype at Sundance--even though some of us felt certain that the festival's other Taylor movie, the forthcoming Girls Town, was the much bigger deal. Fun rather than rich or revealing, Warhol is defined by the actress's indelibly frivolous turn as the butch dyke radical feminist playwright and would-be Warhol assassin Valerie Solanas. Much of the movie embodies a similarly playful variant of '60s-era cool: the Godardian credit scene; Solanas's comic monologues about how "the male is a biological accident"; the tender performance by Stephen Dorff as drag queen Candy Darling; the vivid recreation of Factory life. Amid these diversions, it takes a while to realize that the film has a near-total lack of perspective--not to be confused with ironic Warholian distanciation--on the events being described.

Former BBC documentarian-turned-director Mary Harron begins her film in the summer of '68, with Taylor's Solanas trudging into the Factory to shoot Warhol (Jared Harris) three times before openly confessing the crime. The movie then intercuts the vague details of Solanas's past with her stand-up comedy-style readings from SCUM Manifesto, her philosophical handbook for the Society for Cutting Up Men, of which she was the only member. Solanas first learns of Andy Warhol after poking her head into one of his crew's on-location film shoots in a dingy apartment, and, after meeting him, begins to hope that the man himself will produce her play Up Your Ass--a comedy about "how sleazy and disgusting men are." After a brief show of interest, Warhol and his cooler-than-thou cronies begin to ignore Solanas--apparently for being more Beat than glam, more dyke than drag queen, and more talkative than the Factory's chosen women. Her "excommunication" from the Factory thus inspires various acts of desperation, including a fateful tryst with a gun-toting hippie revolutionary.

Failing to indicate whether this woman was mentally ill, the victim of a troubled past, or both (a teasing reference to her abusive parents is just that), Harron blames the Factory for sending Solanas off the deep end while clearly idolizing the scene and its players. The director gets an obvious kick out of staging a Factory event midway through the film--with Yo La Tengo playing a VU-like "party band," and Ellen Kuras's tour de force cinematography showing off an endless array of primary colors--but it's here that the movie loses sight of its protagonist in favor of such bit players as Paul Morrissey (Reg Rogers), Gerald Malanga (Donovan Leitch), and Ondine (Michael Imperioli)--one-dimensionally nasty cretins all.

Woe unto the filmmaker who lets Lili Taylor slip away from her movie. Harron has said that she based her Solanas on Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle, although she doesn't have a hint of the menace. Taylor's Solanas seems charming, funny, and beautiful--qualities which aren't often attributed to the real person, and don't gel with the character's politics either. It's never clear how she's able to conceal her apparent contempt for men even while seeking their approval, or why she identifies as a lesbian when she seems to nearly avoid associating with women (conspicuously, the film's single gay moment shows a high-school age Solanas playing footsie with her guidance counselor). Harron introduces the magnetic Martha Plimpton in a crucial role as Solanas's abrasive neighbor friend, and then forgets about the character almost entirely.

Certainly, one of the many tragedies of this story is that Solanas found nowhere to belong, but the movie doesn't explain why. If her murderous feminism was just a shtick, her own sort of performance art (a notion Harron enhances through Taylor's stand-up SCUM routines), then she definitely chose the wrong audience in the Factory, whose equally alternative, supposedly libertine aesthetic favored non-professional stars of a more glamorous sort. The movie's confidently role-playing Solanas seems far too resilient for a "borderline personality," which may reflect either the mainstream aspirations of the director or the irrepressible energy of the actress. Taylor's genius is still abundantly clear, but it's tempting to consider that the underutilized Martha Plimpton might have made a more apt Solanas.

A different sort of star gazing is offered in Dead Man, the first Jim Jarmusch movie to be released in over four years. A daringly obtuse, gorgeously photographed, black-and-white anti-Western whose camera has an obvious crush on lead Johnny Depp, Dead Man was first screened a year ago at Cannes, where it polarized the crowd and provoked its maker to cut almost 10 minutes. At its current length of two hours, this is still a movie languid and unusual enough to risk being seriously hated; myself, I happen to adore it. Depp plays William Blake (no relation to the British poet), a late-19th-century accountant from Cleveland who travels west for a job in the apocalyptic frontier town of Machine. Instead of gaining employment, he ends up killing a man in self-defense; is befriended by an Indian (Gary Farmer) whose name is Nobody; and, amid an onslaught of wanted posters and hired guns, wanders through an oddly artificial-looking wilderness toward his own grave.

Set in the 1870s, Dead Man seems to be about the violent changes wrought by the industrial age: The dystopic Machine literally seals Blake's fate, although the film's underlying spirituality allows the man to return to "the place he came from"--which isn't to say Cleveland. Along the way, he evolves: into a friend, a killer, even into a dead man. With its countless fade-outs, seemingly aimless narrative, and deliberately repetitive Neil Young score--not to mention its bevy of cult-star cameos by Robert Mitchum, Crispin Glover, and a dolled-up Iggy Pop--the movie consistently privileges style and tone over conventional storytelling, typified by a beautifully weird moment near the end in which Blake bonds with a decomposing Bambi.

Per Jarmusch, not much happens, but all of it's magically filtered through Depp's foreign Everyman: a cowboy cum model with shoulder-length hair, oval wire-rims, a top hat, a checkered "clown suit," and impossibly glossy lips. Jarmusch pulls his camera in so tight that Depp often resembles a softly out-of-focus, silent-era actress; no wonder Blake seems alluring to two grungy backwoodsmen, who proceed to fight over who'll "have" him. Throughout, the film stays fully invested in the inner life of its protagonist, a strategy I Shot Andy Warhol might well have taken to heart. Albeit so slight that it sometimes hardly seems to exist, Dead Man contains a depth beyond the frame. Depp's Blake might not even be alive for most of the film, although the actor gives him the resonance of both a "stupid fucking white man" and a matinee hero of the most purely sensual kind.

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