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All Together Now

by Chris Dashiell

The time it took for the hippie communes of the 60s and 70s to pass from intriguing ideal to universal object of ridicule was so swift as to be barely measurable. It's easy to make fun of those days - the kind of cheap humor that is based on old cultural references and a smug superiority to the past.

It is a harder task to make a film about a commune with affection for the people involved, and a real sense of the time, while retaining enough insight to make us laugh. Such a film is Lukas Moodysson's Together - a tale with an edge of thoughtfulness and sadness, lending the comedy a flavor more sweet than sour.

In 1975 Stockholm, eight young people live in a communal household called "Together," based on notions of free love and leftist political idealism. One of them is passive and mild-mannered Goran (Gustaf Hammarsten), having an "open" relationship with his girlfriend, and swallowing his jealousy when she sleeps with the rigid Marxist ideologue in the next room. He gets a call from his sister Elisabeth (Lisa Lindgren), distraught after her alcoholic husband has hit her. Goran agrees to let her move into the house temporarily with her two kids. The naive housewife, a study in contrast to the other residents, gets an amusing initiation into communal life, while the children - 13-year-old Eva (Emma Samuelson) and 10-year-old Stefan (Sam Kessel) - are miserable in their new environment.

Moodysson's sympathies are clearly with the kids. He is good at showing how the adults' facile beliefs translate into flightly behavior that the kids experience as confusing, neglectful, and crazy. The self-conscious Eva, with an unmet need for attention and stability, defines the commune as "wearing ugly clothes, and listening to bad music." Stefan eventually adopts the adults' approach in order to win concessions from them. He and another household boy parade protest signs in the kitchen saying "We Want Meat!" They get their hot dogs, and eventually a lifting of the ban on television as well.

The humor doesn't soften the real suffering that the children experience. It's to the film's credit that pain and sadness are depicted clearly, yet they don't overshadow a sense of compassion - the commune members are young and foolish, not malicious. The problem is that their professed ideals are at odds with their lack of self-awareness. In addition, the constant drinking and getting high indicate more than just a healthy pursuit of pleasure. There's also an element of denial and escape - one of the era's major contradictions.

It's difficult to call Moodysson's direction a style. It seems more like a studied lack of style - the hand-held camera and informal editing rhythm simulating the freewheeling mood of the times. Although the story resonates in many ways, the treatment is light - I would say almost too light at times, with an episodic, throwaway quality that works against itself. But the film is a pleasure to watch, and goes down easy like a quick summer read.

The secret to Together's charm is that Moodysson - who was only 6 years old in 1975 - loves his characters and their faulty ideals, and pokes fun at them out of true regard rather than malice. People, the film makes clear, have a need for community that is not met by the isolated individualism of today's culture. The parallel story of Rolf, the kids' father (Michael Nyqvist) illustrates the failure of the conventional approach. He genuinely loves his family, and he's desperately lonely, but he needs to grow out of his selfishness in order to find a better way to live.

The hope and promise of the 60s leaves an ache in many of the hearts who lived through that era. At times, watching Together was an embarrassing reminder of a younger self that I'd rather forget. But in its warm-hearted comedy, it offers the possibility of reclaiming the better part of that spirit, and understanding and forgiving the rest.

An occasional journey to the cheap theaters, with their sticky floors and squalling children, allows me to experience, in some small way, the mainstream American film, without too much damage to the wallet. There I see movies which I heard about two months ago or more, in prints that have grown grainy with use. Rarely does the experience dent my snobbish complacency. I certainly wish there were more exceptions to this rule, but the two films I briefly review below are not among them.

The Score is a heist picture that brings together two of the greatest film actors of the last fifty years, Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando, with one of the best newer talents, Edward Norton. Do I expect more from the picture because of this? Of course. Yet I would be satisfied with even a routine genre flick if it were done right. This picture is routine, but it doesn't even provide enough mild pleasure to make it memorable.

De Niro plays a master safecracker who is persuaded by his long-time backer (Brando) to take on a huge job in his home town of Montreal, with inside help from an up-and-coming wiseguy (Norton). As in all heist films, the key element is tension, and director Frank Oz does manage to create some in the set-up for the big job. The details are preposterous, and hopelessly complicated, but that's common in these kind of movies. The plot does get the heart racing a bit, and if that's all you want, then The Score will please you.

De Niro is workmanlike and nothing more. Brando's part is too slight, his character too sketchy, to allow him to show any acting chops at all. He basically phones in his performance. Norton is a clever actor, and he gets to do some funny mimickry here, but there's no logic to his (or anyone's) character. Angela Bassett is wasted in an empty girlfriend part. I imagine that the actors were thrilled to have a chance to work with each other. The big problem is, the script (by a bunch of folks) is knuckleheaded, employing a plot twist that defies all reason for the sake of mere surprise. Even an entertaining trifle should have something in the style or characters to grab you. The Score is flat, by-the-numbers filmmaking.

Frank Oz is a Hollywood director who has a few hits to his credit, consequently getting steady work, but has yet to make a single film with an interesting or distinctive style (unless you consider the Muppets interesting or distinctive). Here he points a camera at his actors, and they walk through their parts, and it's disappointing because you know they can do better. Rumor has it that De Niro directed a few scenes himself. I'd like to see him try his hand at something more challenging.

In marked contrast to Oz, Tim Burton has always had a personal style and a strong visual sense. Even at his most commercial there has always been something different about a Burton film.

Until now, that is. After seeing his version of Planet of the Apes, it is hard for me to fathom what drew him to the project. The film's humor, such as it is, has the same pandering quality common to every other big Hollywood meat-grinder production. Any potential the story may have had for riffing on the human-animal dichotomy, or on the inflated self-importance of homo sapiens, is buried under the crushing weight of action movie conventions that have become obligatory tics on the face of studio filmmaking.

There is no point in capsulizing the story. Except for a nice shot or two, any hack could have directed this. The impressive make-up is not enough to hold the attention. Even without the amazingly stupid ending - which I still don't understand and have no desire to - the film is an oppressively leaden failure, a vision of total vacancy. Burton displays no zest for sci-fi, or satire, or even for the action genre. I was prepared to speculate that he succumbed to the demands of producing a hit - thereby draining the film of personality - except that he's done big budget before and managed to at least retain some visual flair. It's inexplicable, really, but if I had to make a suggestion for the future, I would say - think small.

Incidentally, Planet of the Apes features a scene involving a spacecraft crashing into an urban environment that got an ucomfortable gasp from the audience. It seems that September 11th has altered our response to such spectacles. If there's any good in this, it's in the possibility that the simulated mayhem of the blockbuster is on its way out. It's too similar to the real mayhem confronting us.

©2001 Chris Dashiell