PARK CITY 2001 REVIEW: My Bloody Valentine, Curtain Raiser Caveman Stinks
(indieWIRE/01.19.01) –You’re not supposed to get apoplectic over the opening night Park City slot (past so-so selections have included Tom DiCillo‘s “The Real Blonde,” James Merendino‘s “SLC Punk,” and Stanley Tucci‘s “Joe Gould’s Secret“), but there’s something especially noxious about Kasi Lemmons‘ “The Caveman’s Valentine” and its high-profile slot in this year’s Sundance premiere line-up. It’s not merely one of the most excruciating and confused American movies in ages, it also illuminates the fatal misstep of Hollywood’s misguided co-mingling with the independent film demi-monde. It’s nothing less than the nail in the Indiewood coffin, a blessing in disguise, but an ordeal all the same.
Gaseous über-producers like Elie Battlefield Earth Samaha, who co-produced “Caveman’s Valentine” with Danny DeVito and a slew of others, shall continue to blow into Park City with toxic force but the poor quality of this year’s crop of Indiewood fare on display at Sundance (including “The Invisible Circus,” the festival’s torpid centerpiece film) might well induce some sort of industry backlash, heralding a return to Sundance’s original grass-roots raison d’etre. Bad literary adaptations were what spurred the French New Wave into action, after all, and digital gimmickry won’t float the DV boat much longer unless more solid storytelling surfaces. Hopefully, if Sundance tradition prevails, “Caveman’s Valentine” might well disappear in the noxious haze of its own prestigious slot, precisely the fate this sort of drivel deserves. I’ll try not to get too riled over it.
Kasi Lemmons played a supporting role in “The Silence of the Lambs” and then wrote and directed “Eve’s Bayou” a few years later, which had its champions in the indie world but barely coasted along on its swampy, soapy Southern Gothic shenanigans centering upon Samuel L. Jackson as the philandering patriarch of a close-knit bayou family descended from Creole eccentics. Recounted in hindsight from the perspective of the grown daughter who killed Jackson’s character when she was ten, the magical realism-infused “Eve’s Bayou” excelled as a fractured memory piece about the sins of the fathers, although its dialogue was often too florid and its central performance, by grating child actor Jurnee Smollet, was bellicose and overpraised at best.
Many of the same elements re-emerge in “Caveman’s Valentine,” a bellicose Southern Gothic sins-of-the-fathers sleuth-er transplanted to modern-day Manhattan starring Samuel L Jackson as a former piano prodigy whose paranoid-schizophrenic jeremiads and self-imposed homelessness (he lives in a cave in Inwood Park) have alienated him from his police officer daughter (Aunjanue Ellis) and his former Julliard colleagues, who live in awe of his suppressed musical genius. Dreadlocked, demented and disgruntled, Jackson’s Romulus Ledbetter is a muttering fringe-dweller in fake-looking locks who’s convinced that an unseen adversary, Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant, is tracking his every move from atop the Chrysler Building, emitting (get this) noxious green rays of light that smell like rich men’s bank accounts, like success, thus ensnaring the nutcase in a slave-like thrall that is presumably racial subjugation. Though mercifully, “Caveman’s Valentine” isn’t intelligent enough to preach. Prone to delusional, sepia-toned visions featuring bare-chested black men and fluttering moth-seraph creatures, the over-composed, vaguely New Age-style production design of “Caveman’s Valentine” (imagine a cross between a Pottery Barn catalog and “Healing with the Angels: How the Angels Can Assist You in Every Area of Your Life“) nearly eclipses the script in its awfulness.
After a fellow homeless man is found dead in a tree outside his cave, Ledbetter begins investigating controversial gay victim artist David Leppenraub (“Colm Feore“), a smug photographer of erotic, vaguely sadistic black-and-white male nudes, whose subject, Ledbetter’s slain cohort, might have been tortured to death at Leppenraub’s shabby chic Hudson Valley farmhouse.
A subplot involving a Manhattan lawyer (Anthony Michael Hall, all grown up and looking like Emilio Estevez) who invites Ledbetter into his wood-paneled abode for a hot bath and a tinkling of the ivories does little to advance the plot, reinforcing the film’s dubious message about guilt-driven white upper-class patronage of stinky black men. It takes a white man of privilege to unleash a deranged black man’s hidden genius, whether it’s Ledbetter’s former agent or the sleek, high-living lawyer. And naturally, the lawyer’s uptight yet accommodating wife, ready with a fresh cocktail, acts like a beseeching cartoon character in Ledbetter’s presence, her eyes bugging out like Buckwheat’s once did in the “Our Gang” shorts. Plantations still exist in “Caveman’s Valentine” — amid the gilded heights of Park Avenue, no less — and white people in black movies are crackers and buffoons. Tell us something we don’t know.
Witness Leppenraub’s sex-starved sculptress sister Moira, played by Ann Magnuson, whose phallic sculptures reinforce age-old stereotypes about black men and the white women who want to bed them, particularly after Moira lures Romulus into the sack during a weekend artist’s retreat that’s so forcibly multi-racial as to defy credibility — a couple of bindied Hindus are even thrown into the mix as guests. Lemmons’ depiction of white privilege isn’t so much insulting as it is stupefying — and her depiction of people of color isn’t much kinder. Doesn’t the filmmaker know anything about the whitewashed New York art world?
Indeed, the sole voice of reason in “Caveman’s Valentine” is Ledbetter’s angelic ex-wife, who happens to be a ghost. Not only does Lemmons seem to loathe white men and women, she also doesn’t hold much truck with gay people — her depiction of Leppenraub’s fawning cult of art-fag acolytes, prancing about in black turtlenecks and Prada parkas, is especially insulting. Don’t mind him, he’s a filmmaker, Leppenraub sneers to Ledbetter at one point after an acolyte tries to capture him on video camera. She even hates filmmakers.
Perhaps it’s unfair to blame Kasi Lemmons for all the convoluted idiocy on display in “Caveman’s Valentine” — it’s an adaptation, after all, from the Edgar-winning novel by George Dawes Green, whose previous novel, “The Juror” was adapted into a minor Hollywood hit starring Demi Moore and Alec Baldwin.
But what is a pop-fiction adaptation like this doing at Sundance in the first place? Have the Hollywood producers who’ve invaded Sundance in droves over the years lost the plot entirely by thinking that pop-fiction adaptations like these are going to prolong the market that “Pulp Fiction” helped to create? These adaptations couldn’t be less fresh, edgy or challenging — they’re what you begrudgingly read on airplanes to tune out screaming, snot-nosed toddlers. They’re what you end up watching on airplanes, for crying out loud. What is the goal of Indiewood, then, besides releasing unwatchable, stillborn tripe that’s neither daring, dramatic nor dense? What is the purpose of Sundance these days, except to propel the notion that the sophomore slump is a terrifying and very real phenomenon indeed?
What’s most distressing about “Caveman’s Valentine,” however, is the material’s manipulative means of martyrizing its Christ-like central character. Like Denzel Washington in “The Bone Collector,” solving crimes from his wheelchair, or Sam Jackson unleashing mayhem from a wrecked body in “Unbreakable,” Romulus Ledbetter fights the power from the confines of his own convoluted head, sparking a strange new trend in the characterization of black men in Hollywood films. And “Caveman’s Valentine” is very much a Hollywood film. The message here seems to be that black men can only triumph through the adversity of subjugation, in the form of fluorescent green “Z-rays” emanating from atop the Chrysler building.
Finally, the concept of Samuel L. Jackson as an amateur sleuth of dubious sanity might have seemed intriguing on paper, but you spend most of “Caveman’s Valentine” wishing Jackson would just shut the fuck up. Is this great actor capable of portraying anything but bellicose, belligerent, bad-ass motherfuckers? The Cheesburger Royale rant in “Pulp Fiction” was one thing, the insane wheelchair-bound delusions of “Unbreakable” were another