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Tuesday, August 16, 2022

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: Tracking a social media monster in 'Sweat'

Screen Grabs: Tracking a social media monster in ‘Sweat’

Plus: A trainwreck Val Kilmer self-documentary that still rivets, a stylish goof in homage to a Dominican legend

It was some time after the turn of the millennium that I realized a basic narrative convention had changed in popular entertainment. Presumably under the influence of reality TV, among other things, it was no longer enough for fictional protagonists to experience the climactic triumph of a wedding proposal, daring rescue, or whatever, in relative privacy. Now they had to be cheered and applauded by an onscreen audience—in addition to the one watching the movie, or TV program. It was a subtle but telling shift: Real life (even the pretend kind) was no longer enough. Everyone had to be a star, with a “public” watching and approving. 

The arrival of platforms like YouTube and Instagram meant that one need no longer fear the fame-hungry might run off to try their luck on the wicked stage, or in Hollywood. Now they could realize their narcissistic fantasies at home, without or without talent; all the addictive, narcotic aspects (if seldom the financial benefits) of celebrity tantalizingly accessible. As a result, we now live in a world with a vastly increased population of empowered narcissists, whether they are professed entertainers, entrepreneurs, politicians, or something as nebulous as an “influencer.” That this trend has duly conquered is borne out by the fact that we’ve now had an actual US President whose principal drive in life was not the traditional ills of power or money (though they certainly factored), but a pathological need for attention. For likes, even. 

In that context, one of the more interesting movies to come down the pike lately is the Polish Sweat, whose protagonist is a particular modern monster—a social media celebrity so born to that role, she hardly knows how to exist off-line. Perky blonde Sylwia Zajac (Magdalena Kolesnik) is a “fitness motivator” who does in-person aerobics classics at malls and such that are received as if a goddess had deigned to fleetingly step to Earth from Olympus. She is earnest, accessible, and affectionate with her fans (aka “my loves”)—but then, they offer blind adoration. When it comes to actual relationships, Sylwia runs a narrow gamut between disinterest and sulking petulance. She barely notices that a handsome sometime colleague (Julian Sciezewski as Klaudiusz) is into her; such potential real-world intimacies are far less fulfilling than the constant digital ego-boosts from 600,000 followers.

But despite her radiance as a public persona, she can turn radioactive with insecurity in a heartbeat, as when it seems her agent hasn’t gotten her booked on a TV show. When Sylwia goes to her long-suffering mother’s birthday party, she can hardly go five minutes before having a meltdown at not being the center of attention. Even a constant gift stream of luxury good freebies from companies hoping to gain her endorsement does little to pacify this princess. The more we get to know Sylwia, the more it becomes apparent that her perfect surface barely disguises a gaping abyss of neediness and self-pity.

Writer-director Magnus von Horn’s film itself is pitiless (though not gratuitously cruel) until an ending that rings a bit false—as if he feared leaving Sylwia unredeemed would be too much for us. But that ray of hope feels contrived after the clear-eyed dissection of the prior 100 minutes or so. Sweat, which begins streaming on platform MUBI Fri/23, has other flaws, too. Still, it’s got its finger firmly on the pulse of something that few other fictive films to date have captured quite so well. 

Other movies arriving this weekend also mull in different ways on the phenomena, usefulness, and pitfalls of stardom:

Geraldine Chaplin and Udo Kier are certainly screen legends of a sort, each of whom maintain idiosyncratic careers performing fluently in multiple languages in their mid-’70s. The child of an even bigger legend, she’s been in everything from Doctor Zhivago to “The Crown,” working repeatedly with the likes of (ex-husband) Saura, Altman, and many other esteemed auteurs. The German Kier (whose incredible Palm Springs home sculpture garden I once got to tour) gained a cultish following from early on, attracting such directors as Paul Morrissey, Argento, Fassbinder, Just Jaekin, Borowczyk, Herzog, Lars von Trier, Monika Treut, Gus Van Sant, Guy Maddin, even Rob Zombie and Uwe Boll. Unlike Chaplin, he’s long been considered “camp,” but that hardly does full justice to an actor capable of being as harrowing as he was in The Painted Bird two years ago.

Thus both bring a lot of good celluloid baggage to this film by the duo of Israel Cardenas and Laura Amelia Guzman, which itself is a tribute to an obscure screen maverick from the Dominican Republic. Jean-Louis Jorge made two early 1970s features that have been very hard to see. (Pssst: 1975’s B&W Melodrame recently snuck onto YouTube). But they were notable for their florid immersion in the same deep well of retro cinematic kitsch that had already been dipped into by experimentalists Warhol, Jack Smith, and the Brothers Kuchar, later to be be elaborated further by Curt McDowell, Rufus B. Seder, and others. A too-well-kept cultural secret, he left behind numerous unrealized projects when he was killed in an apparently homophobic 2000 assault.

Beasts has Chaplin as Vera, an androgynous, imperious elderly diva who returns to Santo Domenico to work with other erstwhile Jorge colleagues on filming one of his scripts, as both star and director. Producer Victor (Jaime Pina) fears she may no longer be in full control of her mental faculties. We wonder, too—though as we see Vera practice yoga and go diving, there is clearly nothing wrong with the deceptively frail-looking Chaplin’s physical faculties. 

Their planned mashup of musical numbers and vampire intrigue soon starts going south, its doomed progress not aided by the arrival of Vera’s cinematographer spouse (Kier). Is a real vampire stalking the set? Bodies do begin to pile up, but how seriously are we meant to take any of this? A loose if stylish goof, Holy Beasts is (like Roman Coppola’s CQ two decades ago) a homage less interesting than the subterranean films it references and excerpts. It certainly whets the appetite for better acquaintance with Jean-Louis Jorge, which is probably the whole point anyway. The film is available for streaming on Film Movement Plus. 

Val Kilmer is one of those actors who, having briefly ascended to a top-tier stardom he couldn’t sustain, has by dint of on- and off-screen eccentricity become another sort of cult figure, akin to Hollywood generational peers Mickey Rourke and Nicolas Cage. But no one is a bigger fan of Val Kilmer than, it seems, Val Kilmer. He’s apparently been videotaping himself (or rather having others videotape him) at play, on set, in acting classes, et al. since the late 1970s. Those thousands of hours of Me, Me, Me-ness constitute the gist of this vanity project documentary by Ting Poo and Leo Scott, two names (without any professional track records) that may well be pseudonyms for all I know. Clearly this is The Gospel According To Val, and he’ll have the last (indeed only), word—even if those words must be spoken by his son Jack, since The Man himself is seen vocally hobbled by throat-cancer treatments here. 

Taken at face value, this is a portrait of an antic, flamboyant, versatile, energetic performer and all-around creative who’s been misunderstood as “difficult” when he is really just all about the work. We also see how he’s been victimized by not getting roles he should have, by lending money to his father, by alimony, by the Batsuit (plus that was a shitty role anyway, he confides), by the ’08 financial crisis, and so on and so forth. When his mother dies, he films himself crying “I miss my momma!” He also films himself vomiting at ComicCon, then going back to sign more autographs. Val Kilmer wants to be loved, dammit. It’s the least we owe him for the gift of his existence!

All this might be a little hard to take even if Kilmer didn’t have a four-decade record of being (as one newspaper headline once summarized) “childish, impossible, psychotic” on numerous very unhappy productions. In Val he offers his wildly self-serving take on what happened during the making of 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, the most notorious such case. Unfortunately, for him, an entire documentary (Lost Soul) already exists in which virtually every other surviving participant on that ill-fated film testifies to how much more nightmarish he made their experience. There’s a lot of that sort of thing here, including a couple times Kilmer includes self-shot footage (on the Moreau set, and interacting with ex-wife Joanne Whalley) he seems to think supports his viewpoint; but which, in fact, makes him appear exactly the insufferable giant manbaby he swears he’s really, really not. 

Val (which opens Fri/23 at the Embarcadero and other area theaters, then streams on Amazon Prime as of Aug. 6) is a trainwreck on more levels than you can count, though the actor’s devotees will probably love it anyway—perhaps even as a result. It is not exactly dull, but it is maddening, and at times begs to be throttled. Which may indeed make it, in a way, a remarkably accurate self-portrait. 

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