Outsider Art

It isn't paranoia if they're out to get you: Aunjanue Ellis and Samuel L. Jackson in <i>The Caveman's Valentine</i>

It isn't paranoia if they're out to get you: Aunjanue Ellis and Samuel L. Jackson in The Caveman's Valentine

The best part about The Caveman's Valentine is simply looking at Samuel L. Jackson. Just taking him in. Not in a sexual way, necessarily. There's a dinner party scene where he's gussied up in an expensive black suit and starched white shirt, standing miles taller than everyone around him, with ropes of silver dreadlocks hanging to his waist. And it's incredible: Jackson is so stunning that the intensity of the image is almost too large for the frame of the movie. Fortunately, the film wears its dramatic weight gracefully. The aforementioned image marks his character--a schizophrenic genius pianist/homeless man/amateur detective (whew!)--as an outsider to the relative peons surrounding him. (Who are mostly white, though I'm not sure that's significant in any predictable way.)

Jackson's character, Romulus Ledbetter, is on a superhero's mission: to solve the murder of a young homeless man whom he found sitting in a tree, frozen, on the morning of Valentine's Day in Central Park. (A hell of a creepy image, by the way.) Romulus, known as the Caveman, lives in a cave in the park, and feels responsible for the death: Earlier, walking down the street, he saw a young man scrawl "Help Me" on a wall, and didn't respond. (He did, however, stand and talk back to the graffiti for a while, trying guiltily to explain that he couldn't possibly help. At first, this seems like a sign of his nuttiness, but it ultimately illustrates his goodness--his uniquely sane sense of connection and responsibility to those around him.)

But The Caveman's Valentine doesn't take the easy way out with some kind of crazy-people-are-sanest reversal. Romulus truly is a stone nut case who drifts back and forth between lucidity and paranoid hallucination. (He believes a sort of Big Brother figure plots against him from the top of the Chrysler Building, using various forms of colored lights to frighten him; and he also receives messages and video images via an old, unplugged TV in his cave.)

Nobody believes Romulus about the murder, including his daughter (Aunjanue Ellis), who's a cop. Eventually he comes to realize that in order to solve the case, he has to control his mind, although these visions are also intertwined with the Vision--which, in turn, is entwined with his art. His supposed live video feed gives him a premonition of a crime before he ever finds the body. And his internal, musical vision gives him the courage to fight: Sometimes he sees himself playing the piano in one of the chambers of his own mind, surrounded by the most beautiful black moth people--angels, actually, dancing with pulsing wings. And his deepest instinct, his voice of apparent reason, takes the form of a muse: his wife (Tamara Tunie), who appears to tell him how he's messing up. And so the real mystery of the film is not the murder, but Romulus himself. Which visions and voices are we to trust? Any of them? Did he really go to Juilliard? Is he ever going to try and get his act together? Will he write music again? When and why did he lose his marbles?

There's a distinct thrill to watching a film through unreliable eyes, a feeling slightly reminiscent of watching Vertigo. And Jackson is, for the most part, reliably unreliable, though every so often one can see the actor's effort in conveying Romulus's slide between states of consciousness. Despite occasionally wayward line readings, however, Jackson inhabits the role with such physical mastery that one cannot imagine another actor in the part: He's outrageously watchable. And those dreadlocks! They seem to function as a visual extension of Romulus's soul, which is also layered and mutable. At first they suggest ragged old craziness; later, they're leonine; later still they suggest sexual vulnerability. (He gets lucky with an artist played sweetly by Ann Magnuson.)

In her superior first film, Eve's Bayou, director Kasi Lemmons revealed a fluency with interior visions (particularly those of a psychic woman who helps find lost people), and a sympathy for people who see more than they're supposed to. (The film's plot is set in motion when a young girl accidentally sees her father, played by Jackson, with another woman in the family carriage house. Her older sister tries to convince her that she didn't see it.)

In The Caveman's Valentine, Lemmons takes even more risks with the imaginative realm, and it mostly works. Her scope is a little broader, a little more politicized: Besides railing against the evil man controlling the world from the Chrysler tower, Romulus also delves into the New York art scene, where it seems that only certain brands of visionary mania are acceptable. (In the dinner party sequence, Lemmons takes aim at artistic snobbery and the deadliness--forgive the pun--of heartless art.)

What's disorienting, in a way, is that while we expect some overt race/class commentary, none ever comes. Yes, Romulus is black and homeless in New York, solving the murder of a gay, white homeless man and hobnobbing with wealthy art jerk-offs--many of whom are white, and some of whom are gay. Yet the big, here's-where-it-all-comes-together political point is never made.

Lemmons is so allergic to easy conclusions that she'd probably bristle at this notion, yet it seems that, in his paranoid hypersensitivity, Romulus is, on a metaphorical level, an Everyman, and only an outsider to the extent that most people feel like interlopers in society. Lemmons's use of video suggests the ways in which people's personal visions--even our experiences of time, sound, and movement--are distorted by constant exposure to the mass media. Romulus's effort to distinguish his own inner voice amid internal static--a struggle that every person must join with increasing focus, as the media shape our daily perceptions--gradually leads him to the truth.

It must be said that Eve's Bayou had a subtle confidence and a clarity of purpose that The Caveman's Valentine lacks. Perhaps that's because the new film's culture--the culture of Romulus's mind--is entirely imaginative: It's harder to sculpt reality from the void than from actual history. Still, the movie's wacked-out cadences certainly have their charms. Interestingly, the message is not much different, in the end, from that of Eve's Bayou: Trust yourself. The film never offers a real verdict on which of Romulus's visions and voices are false. For all we know, there really is some bastard trying to control the man's mind--and our own.