Strokes of Inspiration 

Larry Flynt, man of respect

Larry Flynt, man of respect

In college my freshman year, most of the guys on my dorm floor picked up the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue the day it came out. At least half of them purchased Playboy. Once in a while, somebody would produce a rumpled Penthouse for a dramatic recitation of the “Forum.” But no one ever brought out a copy of Hustler. With other skin mags, you could at least fool other guys—and yourself—that you bought them for some partially innocuous reason: to read the interviews, to laugh at the stupid letters. No such pretense existed with Hustler. Purchasing Hustler was like hanging a sign around your neck that said, “This is the only contact I’ll ever have with pussy.”

Granted, that’s a crude statement. But is there any more delicate (or accurate) term to describe what Larry Flynt peddled between the pages of Hustler? Playboy sold its corn-fed, airbrushed babes as consumer-culture ideals—what every man should want, what every woman should want to be. Hustler dropped the gentleman’s-club niceties and sold its own ideal of femininity: an all-night car lot of yawning vaginas with snap-on faces.

Flynt made a covenant with horny loners everywhere that he would never appeal to their higher instincts. By the time he faced Jerry Falwell before the Supreme Court in a landmark libel suit in the mid-1980s, this was taken by some commentators as a perverse streak of integrity. Hustler’s very lack of respectability, paradoxically enough, became its medal of honor.

How strange, then, that Flynt should inspire the eminently respectable The People vs. Larry Flynt, a boisterous, haunting, yet curiously timid biopic directed by Milos Forman from a script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. In facile but grandly entertaining style, The People vs. Larry Flynt traces the porn czar’s all-American rise from poverty in the foothills of Kentucky to a level of success matched only by the master himself, Hugh Hefner. The movie is impeccably acted, solidly crafted, and superbly photographed by one of the world’s masters, Philippe Rousselot; it’s by far the most interesting and most ambitious major-studio release of the past year. And yet it doesn’t go nearly far enough—either in portraying the often indefensible extremes of Flynt’s career, or in challenging the oppression of that prudish censorial bulwark, the MPAA motion-picture rating system.

As in their script for Ed Wood, screenwriters Alexander and Karaszewski upend the classic American success story by placing a goofball from the fringes of society at its center. Woody Harrelson was a perfect choice as the movie’s comic-strip Larry Flynt, here portrayed as a brash, jingoistic go-getter who’s cheerfully shameless in his carnal pursuits. (He literally licks his lips at lusty thoughts.) As the owner of a string of low-rent Ohio strip clubs in the early 1970s, he meets his soul mate in the stripper Althea Leasure, played by Courtney Love with a fearless lack of reserve. Their peculiar, tragic love story gives the movie its center.

With Althea at his side, Flynt transforms his rinky-dink strip-club newsletter Hustler into the filthiest mainstream smut mag in publishing history—racking up a list of powerful enemies all the while. In the scenes depicting Hustler’s rise, as throughout the film, director Forman shows a keen eye for deadpan absurdity and the grotesquerie of bell-bottomed ’70s hedonism in full flower.

If the movie had half the nerve of Courtney Love, who throws herself into the role of Althea with mesmerizing abandon, its arguments about the limits of the First Amendment might have real bite. But for a movie about a daredevil smut king, The People vs. Larry Flynt is oddly prim. At an early Hustler photo shoot, Flynt tells a reluctant photographer that God made the vagina, and he wrenches open the model’s legs for the camera with evangelical zeal. How convenient for the movie’s R rating—without which the movie wouldn’t stand a chance of making back its investment—that a strategically placed bedpost blocks the woman’s crotch.

The irony is that Hustler initially distanced itself from other stroke mags with its gynecological detail; for all its talk of First Amendment courage, the movie can’t even tiptoe where Flynt did handsprings. The climate for adult entertainment—not porn, but serious, explicit dramas with grown-up themes—has chilled so in recent years that a movie like David Cronenberg’s Crash can languish in a studio vault for months because of an NC-17 rating. Why should anyone making a film about Larry Flynt—least of all coproducer Oliver Stone—contribute to that chill with self-censorship?

The answer is that Forman and company don’t trust viewers with the full complexity of the issue. From watching the movie, we get the idea Flynt was persecuted because he showed more skin than other stroke mags and had a rabid anti-authoritarian bent. This is partially true, although Flynt could be quite the authoritarian himself. But the movie has Flynt say that he represents the worst the First Amendment has to protect—without showing us Flynt at his worst. It’s one thing to draw Dorothy getting gang-banged in The Wizard of Oz, which the movie shows; it’s another to publish gags about rape, or a cartoon devoted to the idea of a pedophile molesting little girls—which the movie doesn’t show. With these elements out of the way, the movie can defend Larry Flynt more easily. That’s why the filmmakers made The People vs. Larry Flynt and not The People vs. Mike Diana—although the issue of First Amendment protection for seemingly indefensible material applies just as strongly.

Nevertheless, the casting is thoroughly astute, from Richard Paul’s spot-on, strangely sympathetic Jerry Falwell to Donna Hanover’s airily righteous Ruth Carter Stapleton. And whatever force the movie’s First Amendment arguments have comes from the amazing young actor Edward Norton as Flynt’s attorney Alan Isaacman. Norton may be the first actor in movie history to make an attorney’s closing argument sound perfectly spontaneous; as he argues Flynt’s case before the Supreme Court, he invests the idea of absolute freedom with absolute conviction. The People vs. Larry Flynt is an absorbing, entertaining, and compelling film, but it could use more of the fearless effrontery of its subject—a man who tested the boundaries of liberty with blowjobs, not lip service.—Jim Ridley

Velveeta

In 1982, when MTV was young and music videos were shot by Betacams without white balance, director Alan Parker presented his movie version of Pink Floyd’s concept album The Wall. Inadvertently, he crafted a visual style that would permeate the fledgling “video” medium. With its bombastic, kinetic images, The Wall was responsible for the years of overturned tables, fascist salutes, weird costumes, and stark lighting that would characterize MTV’s early days.

Now, for his adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical Evita, Parker has borrowed back everything that MTV stole from him, plus a little extra. (Even the film’s star, Madonna, is an MTV icon.) Notwithstanding the operatic structure of the source material itself, Parker cuts the film into what is: essentially, one long montage. To the quick cutting, he adds the tilted low-angle views and golden glow so familiar from Celine Dion clips. The greatest successes and the greatest failures of this production of Evita can be laid at the feet of Webber and Rice, but Parker’s stylistic touches spawn fresh failures that are his alone.

Parker’s movie is faithful to the play’s design. The film follows the life of Eva Duarte (Madonna), a poor Argentine who moves to Buenos Aires, becomes an actress, and sleeps her way through a succession of powerful men until she lands in the bed of Juan Peron (Jonathan Pryce), the man who would become president of Argentina. The story is told through the eyes of Che (Antonio Banderas), a ubiquitous “man of the people” who criticizes Eva for masking her ambition behind empathy for the poor.

As theater, Evita is alternately stirring and overbearing. Webber’s music is initially elusive, but the rhythmic changes and melodic counterpunches grow on the listener with repeated exposure. (Since Webber repeats the major musical themes several times, repeated exposure doesn’t take long.) The problem is Rice’s lyrics, which get straight to the point and belabor that point to death. It doesn’t take much insight to depict politicians as self-absorbed or their constituents as star-struck; what Evita needs are characters that are more than talking points in a debate.

A sensitive film adaptation might’ve downplayed the sophomoric criticism of foreign governments and found some dynamics in the single-pitch story, but never let it be said that Alan Parker is a sensitive guy. His one asset is Banderas, who brings sardonic rage and passionate moves to the thankless role of party-pooper Che,. Parker gets less help from Madonna, who doesn’t have the presence to fill Eva Peron’s designer dress, or Pryce, who coughs his lines.

When the curtain falls, though, it falls on the director. It may be that the movie musical needs to be reimagined for a new era, but it’s hard to believe that Parker’s hyperactive vision is the blueprint to follow. His visuals tend to cruise through the consciousness without leaving a dent. Ten-plus years of videos have conditioned us to discount half of what we see when music is playing, especially when the pictures don’t hold longer than five seconds. Alan Parker, who has a history of turning distance into an art form, has taken a surface approach to a musical about surfaces. As a result, his loaded images never go off.

The moments that work in the film are those that have always worked in musicals—the show-stopping numbers that stick to one idea and one setting. The signature song “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” is inexplicably touching; it rolls through the film like a tidal wave, washing away skepticism. Emotion is so scarce in Evita that the song becomes dizzying, overwhelming—even though it’s difficult, once the humming subsides, to remember what it’s actually about. —Noel Murray

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