Messes of the Afternoon
By Emily Condon
Dir. Anthony Hopkins, U.S., Strand
Itâ€™s infinitely arguable whether experimental filmmaking, on the whole, can also function as entertainment; in the end it comes down to matters of taste. But when a true avant-garde auteur plies and plays with the boundaries of the medium, discovering and exposing whatâ€™s possible, the results, whether or not they can be characterized as enjoyable, are often downrightâ€”dare we say itâ€”important. Like him or hate him, David Lynch crafted a unique cinematic language, bringing avant-garde tendencies into narrative. To borrow a phrase from the business world, heâ€™s a capacity builder, and Lynchian images like Dean Stockwellâ€™s gaudy make-up, the quivering knuckles of Laura Dern, and Robert Blakeâ€™s haunting visage are cemented in our collective memory. Looking to the far from conventional Slipstream, it appears that writer/director/star/composer Sir Anthony Hopkins lacks that avant-garde gift. I suspect most viewers will find that the only enduring outcome of Hopkinsâ€™s admittedly bold but nonsensical film is an acute headache.
Hopkins exhibited strange tendencies long before he unleashed the inexplicable hodgepodge of sound, image, cuts, and self-indulgence that comprises Slipstream. Heralded for performances ranging from the profoundly subtle (his butler Stevens, in James Ivoryâ€™s The Remains of the Day, remains among the most heart-wrenching characters in not-so-recent memory) to the peculiarly creepy (his star-making, Oscar-winning work in The Silence of the Lambs), he nevertheless regularly appears in supreme stinkers (The Road to Wellville, Instinct, Hannibal, Bad Company, et al.) and too often proves willing to play the doddering fool (Legends of the Fall, Bobby, etc.). Achieving a status as iconic as that of Hopkins is a blessing and a curseâ€”the capital-A actor enjoys a level of freedom that the workday actor wouldnâ€™t dream of, but along with that freedom comes an attendant responsibility. Hopkinsâ€™s (or perhaps his agentsâ€™) lack of discretion has resulted in his veering ever nearer to the butt-end of a pop culture joke. He still offers sufficient strong and convincing performances to maintain a veneer of respectable dignity, but if Slipstream indicates how he intends to spend his cultural capital, he (and we) might be in trouble.
The film opens with a disorienting muddle of jump cuts, blips, zooms, and dissolves, intercut with a virtual highlight reel of historyâ€™s worst moments (Hitler! The Atom Bomb!). A wash of black settles over the screen, onto which sputters the word â€śSlipstream.â€ť An apparition flickers under the title, a kind of visual whisper that morphs into the word â€śdream.â€ť After this briefest of respites (the only one in the film as I recall), the exasperating barrage of cuts and jumbles returns, and it doesnâ€™t let up for the next 96 minutes.
The content of the filmâ€”the words narrative or plot donâ€™t quite capture itâ€”revolves around Felix Bonhoeffer (Hopkins), an aging screenwriter who appears to be losing his grip on reality, or having a dream, or something. The first act (as much as there are acts) finds Felix lunching with his perky friend Tracy (a grating Lisa Pepper). She discusses the concept of a â€śslipstream,â€ť a vortex in which time, space, dreams, and reality merge and divide into myriad bewildering experiences. As she talks, the images mingle and break and the sound splutters, repeating, echoing, repeating, falling off. Launching into an unrelenting, rat-a-tat pace, the image splits, stops, tilts, cuts to black-and-white, cuts between faces, slows, speeds upâ€¦well, you get the idea.
On the way home, Felix and a now sleeping Tracy get caught in a traffic jam. A disgruntled wild man appears, brandishing a handgun and bellowing at Felix: â€śYouâ€™re losing the plot!â€ť and it seems that something meta this way comes. Except it doesnâ€™t.
Slipstream flirts with a number of genresâ€”the salient Hollywood commentary, the film-within-a-film, the dreamscape, the nightmarish psychological thriller. But thanks to its dogmatic devotion to a too-singular aesthetic and deficiency of substance the film quickly devolves into a lackluster cluster of not too original tricks (why is it that dreams in the movies so often resemble those from other movies but so rarely resemble actual dreams?)
Mistakes and miscalls plague every aspect of the film. John Turturroâ€™s portrayal of movie producer â€śHarveyâ€ť (think of certain other Harvey, if he was 150 pounds lighter and 60 times more irritating) dribbles into painful histrionics; the one good performance in the film (by S. Epatha Merkerson) languishes for lack of purpose. Hopkins canâ€™t quite resist masturbatory touches, whether they be in the form of self-referential cracks, ironic digs at the egos of actors, or pairing himself with two unimpressive women who are considerably younger and more attractive than he (including his wife, Stella Arroyave, who also produced). Mindfucks may aboundâ€”before the glorious arrival of the closing credits, we encounter doppelgangers, shape-shifters, specters of Invasion of the Body Snatchers hero Kevin McCarthy, a sports car that changes color, characters that change names, actors who change identities, dead men that are living, nonlinear editing, Christian Slater, computers as prisons, cell-phones to nowhere, and on and onâ€”but neither obfuscation nor star power mask the simple fact that thereâ€™s no there there.
One has to respect Hopkins, to a degree, for employing his wattage and his wealth in order to propagate his idiosyncratic nonsense into the zeitgeist. Even though itâ€™s a train wreck, Slipstream is a gutsy move for a man who could follow in the footsteps of so many of his peers and whittle away his remaining days cashing easy paychecks. His instincts are right. Sadly, his experiment isnâ€™t.