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Friday, April 30, 1999

A thriller without the right snuff

Question: If Adrian Lyne's "Lolita" (as mentioned here last week) was considered untouchable by U.S. distributors fearing its hot topic, pedophilia, then how is it that Joel Schumacher's "8mm," withits equally sordid topic of snuff films and violent pornography, can be deemed suitable material to top America's box office?

Well, the short answer is that money talks and art walks. If "Lolita" had a budget as big as "8mm," an American "name" star, no literary aspirations, and (crucially) more guns, then probably any moral qualms about the subject matter would have quickly disappeared. Perversity is not the problem; marketability is.

As a reflection of current American standards of taste and what is acceptable, this is a remarkable one: Depicting older men killing a teenage girl (in "8mm") is OK, while falling in love with one is beyond the pale, regardless of the context.

"8mm" is typically hypocritical (like most mainstream films set in the sex trade) in wanting to have it both ways (and I don't mean like Vanessa del Rio). The filmmakers are at great lengths to show us how horrible, how simply immoral, corrupt and -- yes -- evil this world is, while at the same time using its erotically charged attraction to lure us into the theaters.

Well, some come-ons are best ignored, and "8mm" is certainly one of them. While the film purports to deal with the "dark side" a la David Lynch, and features a similarly seedy script by "Seven's" Andrew Kevin Walker, "8mm" is neither as shocking as it would like to be, nor a very engrossing thriller. Least of all does it offer any insight into the world of deviant sexuality or the allure of danger.

Private detective Tom Welles (Nicolas Cage) is a decent family man who makes a living digging up dirt for the rich and famous. His discretion earns him a job with a wealthy widow, who has found a disturbing item in her late husband's private safe: a reel of 8 mm film showing the torture murder of a young girl. After viewing the film, Welles assures her that it's faked, saying that such "snuff" films are the great myth of the porn industry. Still, to ensure her peace of mind, Welles agrees to find out who made the film, and whether or not it's real.

Welles checks the missing person's database, discovers the girl's name, and traces her last known whereabouts to California. Out in L.A., Welles begins to check out the porno scene, trying to find out whether such a snuff film could actually be made. His straight demeanor makes such investigation difficult, so he enlists the help of Max (a pierced Joaquin Phoenix), a wanna-be rock star who's working in an adult bookstore. With Max's introductions, Welles gets to know the ropes of S/M clubs and clandestine porn marts. But Max warns Welles, a suburban family man who knows nothing of this world, saying "There are things you're gonna see that you can't unsee. Before you know it, you're in it."

But it's here that the film is a cheat. There have been several excellent films on the dangerously dark side of desire, movies like "Blue Velvet," "Lost Highway," "Videodrome" or "Cruising." Crucially, though, in each of these films, the hero has to confront his own attraction to this edge, to acknowledge his own weakness and rise above (or succumb to) it. In "8mm," there is no such moment of self-realization. Tom Welles is such a squeaky-clean goody-two-shoes, he has never a moment of doubt in himself, not even when his wife (Catherine Kenner, wasted here) is constantly nagging him over the phone, and he's surrounded left, right, and center by leather-clad sex goddesses.

Indeed, Welles' sole moral conflict is whether or not he should avenge the snuff murder, but the pornographer responsible ("Fargo's" Peter Stormare playing a cross between NYC filmmaker Richard Kern and Old Nick) is such a scumbag and so obviously evil incarnate, that this becomes a moot point. The larger question -- whether acts of violent vengeance will also degrade the righteous man commiting them -- is never even addressed.

Such lack of dimension leads to a regrettably dull performance from Nick Cage, who follows up his most uselessly twitchy performance in "Snake Eyes" with his most soporific turn here. Phoenix brings some spark to his role with a droll sense of humor, and Mychael Danna's Moroccan-influenced score is appropriately haunting, but there is little else to recommend here, especially in the suspense department. After a few intriguing twists and turns, Schumacher eventually brings the story to its predictable bogeyman in the closet conclusion, a sequence which is unfortunately reminiscent of "The Silence of the Lambs."

While Schumacher claimed to want to try something different and "edgy" with "8mm" (after helming the last two by-the-numbers "Batman" films), in the end this is little more than "Death Wish" with S/M trimmings, while the moral dimension of the film is no less two-dimensional than that of "Batman." Where David Lynch or David Cronenberg take us into and through violent sex and madness, Schumacher seems content to view it from the other side of a two-way mirror, for fear that getting too close may be more than he -- or his intended mainstream audience -- could handle.

"8mm" is playing at Shibuto Cine Tower in Shibuya and other theaters.

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