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Too Big to Ignore

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My Giant

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Michael Lehmann

Written by David Seltzer

With Billy Crystal and Gheorghe Muresan.

Gummo

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Harmony Korine

With Jacob Reynolds and Nick Sutton.

By Lisa Alspector

I'll be surprised if many people have anything negative to say about My Giant, a winning comedy-drama about a talent agent who discovers a seven-and-a-half-foot-tall loner in Romania and tries to persuade him to become a character actor. But the charm of this traditional narrative--which goes to great lengths to pretend it's self-aware--depends at least in part on its hypocrisy.

Billy Crystal plays the agent, Sammy, and this sweet, sad, and funny movie shows him at his best, especially when he delivers the chatty, self-searching voice-overs that make it easy to identify with Sammy, a less-than-sensitive opportunist. After he's dumped by a client who's starring in a movie that's being shot in Romania, Sammy accidentally drives his car into a river. Before losing consciousness he sees a pair of enormous hands reach down from the sky, which he interprets as divine intervention when he revives. Actually his life has been saved by Max (basketball player Gheorghe Muresan), the caretaker at the monastery where he's been taken. The first time the audience sees Max it's from the point of view of Sammy, whose investigation of the mysterious circumstances of his rescue has led him to hide in a closet in Max's house. As he peeks out through a crack in the door, he's startled to see the enormous Muresan, whose facial features are heavy, whose hands and feet are disproportionately large, and whose height is exaggerated by camera angles. Sammy feels threatened and hopes aloud that what he perceives as a stereotypical giant won't say fee fi fo fum--a reference to the fairy tale that makes his fear seem ironic.

Sammy knows that the director of the movie in which his former client plays the lead is looking for a big villain, and a lightbulb goes on in his head. And so a giant actor plays a giant who becomes an actor, but My Giant gets only slightly more self-referential before it's over.

At one point Sammy starts to tell Max the story of King Kong but stops, having suddenly realized that Max might see a parallel to his own life. Because it occurs to Sammy that Max might interpret the tragedy of the big ape as a comment on his chances of winning the love of an average-size woman or the respect of people who see him as a monster, the audience is distracted from another possible subtext of the scene. Sammy begins the story to explain to Max, who's never seen a movie, what a movie is so he can persuade him to try out for one. Watching this scene, you can't help wondering how Muresan was approached about playing the role of Max, but Sammy's quick save has resolved the dramatic tension before Max can share the realization. Whether Sammy's cutting the story short because he doesn't want to alienate Max from signing on with him or because he wants to spare Max's feelings, the moment is about Sammy's emotional development--and viewers are distracted from thinking about any parallel between Max and Muresan.

Max gets the part, which whets Sammy's appetite for more success for him and his new client. Desperate to get Max to Las Vegas so he'll have a crack at being cast in a Steven Seagal movie, Sammy accepts an exploitation gig--a wrestling match between Max and several midgets--that will allow Max to earn the money they need to make the trip. But Sammy pulls Max out of the ring the moment he realizes how upsetting the experience is for him. Again, an emphasis on character development, on Sammy learning to be a better person, obscures a parallel between the audience and the cruel, thrill-hungry patrons of the wrestling match--both have just watched a giant tussle with a bunch of midgets. The illusion persists that the producers of My Giant hiring freaks to put on display is altogether different from the manager of an exploitation club doing the same thing.

Surely well paid for his role in My Giant, Muresan may have aspirations that parallel those Sammy initially wanted to instill in Max, and he'll get a lot of exposure in this role. But he'll always play giants. Part of the movie's fantasy is that there might be a big demand for a giant who happens to be a talented Shakespearean orator--a skill Max displays to Steven Seagal (who, like Muresan, plays a version of himself). Seagal is so blown away by Max's impromptu audition that he hires him for big bucks to play the villain in his new action flick and decides on the spot to incorporate Elizabethan dialogue into the script.

It comes to light, however, that Max, who's 36, may not have long to live. He has an enlarged heart, which a doctor says will cause him to die young--especially if he doesn't avoid the physical stress of performing in action-oriented scenarios. (The endocrine disorder that enabled Muresan to become the tallest player in the NBA may also pose risks to his health. Apparently he suffers from acromegaly--a thickening of his extremities and parts of his face--because part of a tumor on his pituitary gland couldn't be removed.) Informed of this, Sammy decides to try to dissuade Max from pursuing an acting career, realizing that whatever fame and fortune might mean to Max or to him, they aren't worth the price. It's a fitting resolution, but it underscores the movie's hypocrisy. Of course, acting in this movie isn't life threatening to Muresan the way acting in a Steven Seagal movie would be to Max. But by ending with Max deciding to forgo an acting career, My Giant becomes strikingly incongruous with the circumstances of its making; in real life Muresan has racked up a high-profile screen credit.

When Sammy takes Max home to meet his family, Aunt Pearl inquires about the size of Max's genitals. Everyone else around the dinner table is mortified by this outburst, but Pearl defends herself, suggesting that she's merely expressed something everyone else in the room was curious about but didn't have the nerve to ask. She's probably right--and she'd probably be right if she'd accused the audience in the dark of the theater too. The narrative suggests this analogy, but it doesn't encourage you to pursue the idea. In fact, My Giant discourages you from pursuing every extratextual parallel it suggests, by sidestepping with humor or dramatic resolution every provocation it contains that might hint at a meaning beyond the level of the story.

Representational narrative movies like this depend significantly on the interest viewers have in looking at people who are attractive--or ugly or something in between. But conventional stories don't draw attention to the fact that the actors are being objectified--they pointedly avoid acknowledging their human props as anything but representers of characters. Yet all live-action movies are also documentaries; as a camera records the actions of actors playing roles it's also recording the behavior of people in front of a camera.

My Giant is exciting partly because it dares to get so close to this idea, even though it then pulls back. But Gummo tackles the issue head-on. The directorial debut of Harmony Korine, Gummo played in town for one week recently, and only at Facets; it's now out on video. This seminarrative about a couple of cat-killing, glue-sniffing boys and the other motley residents of their town--most of whom are represented by nonactors--seemed to alienate many people. It was slammed by most reviewers, including Jonathan Rosenbaum, who suggested in January that Chicagoans should be grateful that the movie hadn't been shown here yet. Janet Maslin observed in the New York Times last October that it wasn't too early to label Gummo the worst movie of 1997.

Like My Giant, Gummo turns a camera on people for reasons besides their acting ability or attractiveness. It features several people with out-of-the-ordinary characteristics--among them an albino, a dwarf, and at least one woman who looks as if her development may have been affected by a chromosomal anomaly--whose participation in the movie can't be fully described as the playing of scripted roles.

In the course of a documentarylike interview the albino woman tells the camera that she has webbed toes. Because Korine has already presented so many unusual things, it seems inevitable that the camera will tilt down to her feet. But it doesn't, and viewers are left wondering whether her statement was true. Because much of what this woman and other people in the movie say and do seems spontaneous, you wonder why the woman would say she had webbed toes if she didn't and why the filmmaker wouldn't show the woman's toes if they were webbed. A character might say she has webbed toes even though the actress playing her does not, but when a woman with no pigment in her skin talks about her albinism and then mentions that she has webbed toes, you're likely to believe her. This construction seems innocent, yet it's highly manipulative. It's one way Korine demands that his viewers think seriously about what it means to watch people on film.

Unlike My Giant, Gummo has no mediating character whose point of view gives the audience cues about how to perceive the other people in the movie. The albino woman may in one sense have been cast, but she's also playing herself and being herself--in a way that's apparently more disturbing to many people than the way in which Muresan is being himself in My Giant. Because it's not clear whether most of the people in Gummo are characters or documentary subjects, there's an ambiguity about everyone's role. Even the behavior of recognizable actors--such as Linda Manz (Days of Heaven) or Max Perlich (Drugstore Cowboy, TV's Homicide)--is shaped by Korine to have the same casual and bizarre qualities as the behavior of many of the other participants.

Part of the blurring between what Korine has contrived and what he's observed and captured in Gummo is linked to the production design, the choice of locations, and even the obviously low budget. Some places, things, and people were probably filmed just the way they were found, yet most of the interiors are ambiguous. A basement piled high with junk may be the result of studious art direction, but it's doubtful. Some flies that have settled behind a picture on a wall could have been lured there with honey--if they're real. But a little kid who's covered with tiny scabs certainly doesn't seem to have been doctored with makeup.

For most of its 95 minutes Gummo urges viewers to contemplate the significance of people being displayed for their intrinsic qualities, something My Giant doesn't do--instead the slickness and fantasy that surround a real giant's portrayal of a giant distract you from thinking about the fact that a giant's been filmed and displayed mainly because of his size. Gummo makes viewers ask hard questions about what exploitation is, about why it might be intriguing, disturbing, or ethically questionable to display or to look at people who seem more vulnerable than professional actors (if for no other reason than it seems likely that they haven't been paid much if anything to appear before you). The movie doesn't answer these questions; they're not answerable. But they're well worth thinking about--especially because movies like My Giant totally discourage it.

Some people abhorred Gummo because they felt it exploited the people who appear in it--a patronizing assumption. Most of the participants in Gummo probably aren't members of any actors' union. But just because they're unusual in some way doesn't mean that they didn't want to be filmed or that they were somehow duped by Korine. Nor are Muresan and the midgets and dwarfs in My Giant necessarily more autonomous (or more like average actors or average people) just because they were motivated in part by career goals and income.

Another bias against Gummo may have been its pedigree. Korine, who wrote the 1995 Kids, wasn't exactly marked for success on the basis of that movie's reception. A squirrelly-seeming guy in his 20s, he appeared on the Late Show With David Letterman with his shoelaces untied and no socks. And the camera homed in, emphasizing an ambiguity in his demeanor that may parallel an ambiguity in his work. It's hard to tell whether Korine's for real--he seems almost as likely to be extraordinarily pretentious as extraordinarily idiosyncratic. In contrast, Billy Crystal--the icon if not the main creative force of My Giant (he's credited as producer and as coauthor of the story on which David Seltzer's screenplay was based)--always looks dapper when he hosts the Academy Awards, and his collaborators also have successful projects behind them (Seltzer also wrote The Other Side of the Mountain, The Omen, and Lucas, which he also directed; director Michael Lehmann has also directed Heathers and The Truth About Cats & Dogs).

Perhaps Gummo was dismissed by many people because it obsessively investigates the gray area between being an object and being an actor in which filmed people necessarily exist. In refusing to ignore the fact that document and fiction always overlap, Gummo distinguishes itself from straight fictions like My Giant, which are rarely if ever expected to justify their inherent documentary aspects.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): My Giant and Gummo photo stills.

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