10 - The Michigan Daily - Friday, September 17, 1999
Los Angeles Times
It began simply enough. Alan Ball was living in
New York, writing plays and supporting himself with
a job in the art department of a Manhattan magazine.
On the street one day he encountered a man selling
comic-book versions of the real-life soap opera known
as the Amy Fisher trial, which then was under way.
Already the case had been packaged as mass enter-
tainment, with pained, complex people reduced to
"I thought to myself: We will never know what real-
ly happened," Ball recalled the other day. "This'thing
had taken on a life of its own, but underneath the
media circus real people's lives were shattered."
Ball began writing a play, wholly fictional, in which
he hoped to explore what might have been going on
underneath. Inspired as much by his own upbringing
in a repressed, conservative Southern community as it
was by the real-life facts reported on the news, Ball
tried to probe the desires, fears and contradictions that
possibly could lead ordinary people to make similar
decisions to the ones made by Fisher and Joey
That was seven years ago. Now, the fruit of Ball's
labors is a movie. His "American Beauty" is not only
vastly different from Ball's earlystabs at writing it, but
also from any other mainstream Hollywood film in
recent memory. It daringly mixes comedy and the
most stark drama in a story held aloft by wry lyricism
and seriousness of purpose. Starring Kevin Spacey
and Annette Bening, "American Beauty" is set in the
sort of picture-perfect suburb where Beaver Cleaver
once romped. But while the film's clan might out-
wardly resemble the idealized families that once
taught us moral lessons on TV and in film, what hap-
pens behind the closed doors and drawn curtains of
the movie's neighborhood more closely resemble
Such is the state of the cinematic family these days.
Rarely are they portrayed as islands of domestic bliss.
Duplicity and self-delusion are the norm. Movieland
marriage is a fractured institution, and childhood a
time of disillusionment and, in some cases, ridicule
"American Beauty" is one of several movies this
fall that look closely at American family life, but these
aren't families anyone would choose to belong to. In
the DreamWorks release, Spacey plays a spiritually
exhausted husband who has grown alienated from his
wife (Bening) and daughter (Thora Birch). Over the
course of the story, as Bening strays outside the mar-
riage for succor and Birch dreams of escape with the
odd boy next door, Spacey finds renewal. But he finds
it in the most taboo of places - in sexual fantasies
involving his daughter's teen-age friend (Mena
Serb filmmaker has
unlikely cult favorite
Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman play mother and daughter in "Anything But Here."
In another coming movie, 20th Century Fox's
"Anywhere but Here' a daughter also wants more
than anything to wrest herself free of an embarrassing
parent. The movie, which was directed by Wayne
Wang and will be released Oct. 22, stars Susan
Sarandon and Natalie Portman as an eccentric, flam-
boyant mother and her daughter who start a new life
on the fringes of Beverly Hills. Their relationship
changes over time itt ways both funny and moving,
with the daughter more often than not acting as the
more mature of the two.
Castle Rock's "The Story of Us,'to be released Oct.
15, stars Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer as a mar-
ried couple who, after 15 years of marriage, find that
the qualities that drew them together now threaten to
tear them apart. They attempt a trial separation in this
Rob Reiner-directed romantic comedy.
For certain, the domestic unit has been fodder for
drama and comedy for as long as either form has
existed. But the institution has come under much clos-
er and sustained examination in recent years, in such
films as "One True Thing," "Pleasantville" and "He
Got Game" from last year; Todd Solondz's
"Happiness" and "Welcome to the Dollhouse" from
1998 and 1996, respectively; and "The Ice Storm"
"Soul Food," "Affliction," "Ulee's Gold" and "Eve's
Bayou," all from 1997. And perhaps the absence of
any significant parental presence in so many teen
films is itself a comment on the state of things.
Of recent movies centering on the family, "Down in
the Delta" stands out as a rarity in the way it affirms
the strength and indomitability of familial love. More
and more, conflict in movies arises not from outside
but from within the home.
That certainly is the case in "The Story of Us." In
the movie written by Alan Zweibel and Jessie Nelson,
the husband and wife played by Willis and Pfeiffer
clearly are in love, or at least they once were. But after
15 years the opposites-attract-type qualities that once
had seemed so endearing -- Pfeiffer's orderliness and
attention to detail, Willis' spontaneity and playfulness
- threaten to tear them apart. While their children are
away at camp, conflict causes the couple to reflect on
the value of their lives together and come to hard deci-
sions about their future.
Although the movies in this crop are very different,
conflict between a responsible family member and
another with a seemingly more laissez-faire attitude
toward life is a part of all three. In "The Story of Us"
and "American Beauty," the outwardly more stable
member is the wife; in "Anywhere but Here" it is a
child, the teen-age daughter played by Portman.
"Thank God for dysfunctional families," said Alvin
Sargent, the veteran writer who adapted "Anywhere
but Here" from a Mona Simpson novel and also adapt-
ed "Ordinary People," one of the great 1980s dys-
functional family films, from the novel by Judith
Guest. "They're God's gift to writers,"he said. "Emile
Zola said, show me a family with a mother, father and
two children and I'll show you a whole library full of
books." Sargent has in his 33-year career written some
of Hollywood's most affecting stories about family
dynamics, including "Ordinary People" (1980) and
"The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon
Marigolds" (1972). Yet he says he never thought of
dysfunctional families as his subject.
"I just write the characters as best as I can under-
stand them," he said. "I put them into complicated-sit-
uations and hope for some fireworks. They get caught
up in (trouble), and they fight to get out of it."
lie Wnluton Post
For those who suspect that Serbians
may not be the evil, ethnic-cleansing
barbarians they're lately portrayed to be,
Goran Paskaljevic has a movie for you.
"Cabaret Balkan;" a black satire that
vividly illustrates the violent anarchy
that has engulfed Yugoslavian society,
has become a cult hit back home.
Balkans audiences, it seems, recog-
nize themselves in the characters that
ricochet helplessly through the unpre-
dictable maze of a broken-down
Belgrade. A Bosnian Serb professor
lives in a garage and drives a bus, which
is hijacked by a former army recruit.
Two best friends pummel each other in a
boxing ring for sport, then pummel each
other out of the ring in anguish. A
despairing young woman carries a hand
grenade in her purse.
It's a sad portrait of a society unravel-
ing at both ends. But Paskaljevic, who
lives in Patis, wasn't looking for sympa-
thy when he shot the film in March
1998, well before the war in Kosovo. He
merely intended to reflect what he sees
in his native land.
"All the relationships are twisted in a
society like this, where we have lost the
notion of morality," he says during an
interview in Los Angeles. "This is very
close to the way it is.
"For seven, eight years we have lived
under an embargo that has enriched the
mafia and the political class, killed the
middle class and hurt regular people," he
says. "Something like three or four hun-
dred thousand young people have left
the country in the past 10 years. We are
near misety. The whole young genera-
tion is without a future.
"When you live with chaos, violence
starts to penetrate the family. And
Belgrade is a city that lives under vio-
lence." He pauses. "Yes, there are chil-
dren. Yes, there are lovers. This film is a
metaphor. But it's a life with no hope.
How can you have hope if you're earn-
ing $5 a week if you're lucky? If you
work in a hospital where you watch chil-
This brief soliloquy has come out in a
rush, and the gray-haired Paskaljevic has
the weary air of a man who has taken on
a nation's collective pain. He sighs. Lately
he's found himself defending his film to
Yugoslavian exiles in America who insist
he grossly overstates the despair.
This annoys him. If that were true, he
asks, why would 250,000 people have
seen the film in Belgrade in a campaign
run entirely by word-of-mouth? (Th'
state-run media emphatically dis-
proved of Paskatjevic's pessim 1
voice.) He says 600,000 have seen the
film across Serbia.
"If the film didn't reflect some rcality,
there would never have been such accep-
tance"he says. "People tell me the real-
ity is worse"
Paskaljevic's film is an Altmanesque
series of tragicomic vignettes tied
together by film's end - a kind of Slavic
"Short Cuts" as seen through the bottom
of a shot glass. The camera follows s
ous characters on a nighttime odys
through Belgrade. Nothing makes sense;
violence is entirely random; hysteria
lurks just beneath the surface. The
impression left is a sort of vertigo-induc-
It's a sentiment with which Paskaljevic,
as a longtime opponent of Yugoslavian
President Siobodan Milosevic, is familiar.
He was born in Belgrade, attended a dis-
tinguished film school in Prague
made his first movie tn 1970 as a studs .
He directed documentaries and shorts and
won festival prizes for features such as
"Beach Guard in Winter" (1976),
"Special Treatment" (1980), "Tango
Argentino" (1992) and "Someone Else's
"Cabaret Balkan;' adapted from the
play "Powder Keg" by a Macedonian
playwright, is his first film distributdin
America. It won the international critics'
award at the Venice Film Festival, am4
Throughout the post-communist era,
the director has been a vocal critic of the
Yugoslavian regime, which is largely
why he moved to Paris in 1995 with his
wife. He visits Belgrade frequently to
see two sons from previous marriages,
and returned in 1996 and 1997 to partic-
ipate in massive demonstrations against
Milosevic. He was back again last y ,
while filming "Cabaret Balkan:'
But he was also a trenchant critic of
NATO's war against Serbia, despite the
"ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo.
"You can't protect human rights by
bombing, especially with bombing that is
a huge improvisation,"he says. Seeretaty
of State "Madeleine Albright convinced
Clinton that it would last five or six days.
It was clear that they didn't know what
they were doing, they underestimated
Milosevic. ... I don't accept the poli*
of force. Neither of Milosevic nor of
America. The politics of force creates
more hate, more damage."