William Gaddis's slim final novel, "Agape Agape," takes the form of a stream-of-consciousness rant delivered by a highly erudite narrator on his death bed that encompasses scattered memories, ruminations on late 19th and 20th century Western culture, and elderly grumblings about the experience of mortal decay. In just a little over one hundred pages Gaddis succeeds in not only creating a fully fleshed character without ever resorting to commonplaces like description and motivation, but also in conjuring an elegy for the very specific brand of omnivorous literacy his protagonist embodies--one it's easy to imagine the writer mourning while finishing the book near his own death, in an intellectual climate far removed than the one in which he began writing.
I couldn't help but think back longingly to the compressed intensity and humor of "Agape Agape" while slogging through Anthony Hopkins's "Slipstream," which the actor wrote, directed and scored. Similarly concerned with the disconnected ramblings of a mind gone awry, Hopkins's creation locates as its avatar actor/writer Felix Bonhoeffer (Hopkins again). Allegedly focusing on Bonhoeffer's mental decay as he begins work on a screenplay for a murder-mystery, "Slipstream" makes the disastrous choice to wage war on conventional narrative from its very first frames--Hopkins never provides audiences a chance to establish any foothold in relationship to its central narrative conceit.
Bonhoeffer has already disappeared the minute the movie starts, and we're offered no chance to know him, or experience the wash of images we're presented with via his point of view. Without a center, the entire project ends up illegible throughout, even as it tries to selectively dole out hints of story advancement. "Slipstream" calls to mind David Lynch's "Inland Empire" gone horribly awry--Lynch, an expert in bending cinematic reality to his will, had the good sense to masterfully seduce audiences into his rabbit hole. Hopkins, seemingly less sure of himself, hyperactively assaults from the start.
For those out there who might question the merits of true avant-garde cinema, watch "Slipstream" against the most abstract of Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, or Michael Snow--why their models of art-making are valuable will become immediately obvious. Where the great experimental filmmakers constantly wring meaning from the juxtaposition of often random-seeming images and sounds, Hopkins is adrift, unable to choose between lapsing into a more conventional structure and truly taking the leap into the great narrative unknown. Thus scenes are replayed, characters switch identities, and a host of digital effects are blasted over the images, all to little effect. Hopkins is occasionally able to fashion sequences of interest, both comedic (a nice bit in which two of the writer's creations approach him to complain about turns taken in his screenplay) and dramatic (a well-staged traffic jam that spirals into violence). Yet without a solid through line, his title grows increasingly apt as the minutes wear on.
Hopkins at least had the sense to surround himself with worthwhile collaborators, including a host of actors obviously out just to help a friend (Christian Slater, John Turturro, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Clarke Duncan). And though "Slipstream" might be hard to watch, it's generally easy on the eyes, thanks to Dante Spinotti's careful cinematography and Michael R. Miller's editing, which fights for precision in the face of a terribly flabby master plan. Given its general technical success, and its brief moments of functional clarity, one only wishes Hopkins had allowed himself the courage of his convictions and let his tale of increasing madness unfold more subtly. Even so, it's impossible to entirely begrudge Hopkins the room to indulge himself on the other side of the camera, responsible as he is for a handful of towering screen performances. On the cusp of 70 years of age, I greatly admire his decision to leap into experimental filmmaking, if not necessarily his landing point.
[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and currently works for Magnolia Pictures.]