The Pot Calling the Kettle Bloody

The Pot Calling the Kettle Bloody

The Pot Calling the Kettle Bloody

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March 9 2001 3:00 AM

The Pot Calling the Kettle Bloody

15 Minutes is red all over; Samuel L. Jackson makes a fine crime-solving psycho in The Caveman's Valentine. 

15 Minutes
Directed by John Herzfeld
New Line Films

The Caveman's Valentine
Directed by Kasi Lemmons
Universal Focus 

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It's too bad that the action scenes in 15 Minutes are so sensationally shot and edited—I hate the thought that a few good jolts (and one shocking plot twist) might make this stomach-turning picture a hit. The movie, written and directed by John Herzfeld, is one of those upbraid-the-media orgies in which tabloid television is shown to inspire and reward acts of violence. The message is: "Bad media— for shame." The film itself, meanwhile, is shameless enough to make those TV blowhards look like mewing Teletubbies. It all adds up to one of the most brazen pieces of blame-shifting in exploitation-picture history.

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You've got to hand it to Herzfeld, though, for coming up with these killers: What an amazing assemblage of disgusting traits! You cringe as they pass through customs (there oughta be a law …), these creatures who seem to have been vomited up from the tar pits of communism—formed by some demonic coalescence of Soviet-bred rapaciousness and decadent Western pipe dreams. The smart one, a lean Czech with a shaved head and a habit of expelling his cigarette smoke into the camera, is convinced (correctly, it turns out) that the American insanity defense will enable him to reap millions from book and movie sales of his bloody exploits. The lumpen one, a Russian, dreams of directing films like his idol, Frank Capra. He doesn't seem to realize that the videos he's shooting—they feature his Czech buddy stabbing people or snapping their necks—owe less to Capra than to Henry: Portrait of aSerial Killer (1986). But hey: Whatever helps you break into the biz.

Herzfeld's purest contempt is reserved for Kelsey Grammer as the host of a Hard Copy-Cops hybrid that lives by the adage: "If it bleeds, it leads." He's the guy who'd pay a fortune for the psychos' atrocity footage—the enabler. And his corrupting influence goes deeper: His show has helped to make a celebrity of New York's top homicide cop (Robert De Niro), a shambling alcoholic whose fame (and multiple ties to TV people) leaves him dangerously vulnerable to the murderous cretins he's chasing. 15 Minutes has everything but Bela Lugosi declaiming "Bevare! Bevare the media dragon!"—although De Niro is almost at the level of Lugosi these days: He pulls faces, he grimaces, he parrots his old schtick. He's lucky that the narrative ends up generating so much sympathy for him, and that most of the emoting falls to the young arson investigator played by Edward Burns, who's more bearable in front of the camera than behind it.

I'd love to spoil the film's surprises, but prudence prevents me (cowardice, too—there are a lot of moviegoing psychos out there who'd be itching for vengeance). The important thing is that 15 Minutes presents a world where the police heroes are unassailable and where the very existence of a free news media threatens the social order. If you extrapolate a bit, you could conclude that Herzfeld would be happier with something like the old Pravda, which was obligated to take its cues from the state—except he wouldn't have been in a position to direct this movie in a tabloid-free society. After all, he made his rep as the writer of the "docudramas" The Preppy Murder (1989), in which the studly Robert Chambers strangles Jennifer Levin during rough sex; and Casualties of Love: The Long Island Lolita (1993), which presents the story of everyone's favorite underage seductress, Amy Fisher, from the point of view of that misunderstood humanitarian Joey Buttafuocco.

Herzfeld's disgust at tabloid ethics might be genuine, but his own ethics are nothing to crow about. He uses violence as a turn-on. He tsks-tsks over Grammer's decision to air a horrific killing, but he has no qualms about giving you multiple views of the butchered, seminude body of a dishy prostitute. He'd probably say that all's fair in fiction—and besides, his audience would be angry if the movie had no blood-drizzled cheesecake on display.

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I never thought I'd be defending the tabloid press, but 15 Minutes puts everything backward. Let's say a TV show did purchase upsetting tape of the murder of someone famous: Wouldn't watching that make people hate violence and therefore be less likely to perpetrate it themselves? It's not the rare atrocity footage that makes killing seem cool—it's the spate of vigilante movies (like this one) that portray violence as both casual and justified. 15 Minutes grows more absurd by the minute. Would any modern American jury allow a serial killer to make a fortune off his story? (To buttress the realism, the filmmakers have cast onetime John Gotti defense lawyer Bruce Cutler as himself.) Back in the days of Dirty Harry (1971), the insanity defense was blamed on Berkeley liberals; the scapegoat now is the "culture of complaint" embodied by talk shows featuring dysfunctional children. Between killings, the Commie psychos watch these programs and jeer at how soft and gullible Americans are; needless to say, the film doesn't mention that these soft, gullible Americans support the death penalty by a greater percentage than anywhere else in the world. The movie is rigged to bring the cop and a handcuffed killer together so that the latter can taunt the former for not pulling the trigger: "You Americans are pussies. You won't kill me. You don't have the balls." All you can think about is how much you want to see that Commie slime-ball riddled with bullets. To think that people like that could be media darlings!

It's a funny thing: Our contempt for the media seems directly proportional to our addiction to trash. We hate the dealer, but we don't (or can't) own up to our own appetites. That kind of cultural repression sets the stage for right-wing vigilante charades like 15 Minutes—movies that cater to the audience's bloodlust and then, through a deft sleight-of-hand, throw the blame onto tabloids and tabloid TV shows (which anyway tend to be moralistic, not liberal). The makers of drooling serial-killer dreck think we're dumb enough to believe that they're all that stands between us and a new kind of Red Menace. Are we?

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Not too many moviegoers would turn out for a film about a homeless African-American delusional paranoiac, but a homeless African-American delusional paranoiac detective—now there's a hook! And not a bad hook: One of the nicest things about a popular genre like detective fiction is that it can take fascinating but commercially unpalatable milieus and make them sexily accessible. In The Caveman's Valentine, Samuel L. Jackson plays a dreadlocked derelict who lives in a cave in upper Manhattan's Inwood Park. He discovers a frozen corpse in a nearby tree and doesn't buy the official explanation of accidental death. So the genre that was originally conceived as a showcase for scientific rationalism has a protagonist who's only intermittently rational.

The movie is mostly good fun. That homeless guy, Romulus, turns out to have once been a brilliant pianist and composer, which enables him to move in high society and show off his virtuosity—that is, until he begins to hallucinate and rail about "Stuyvesant," the archvillain whose rays he believes emanate from the Chrysler Building. You couldn't ask for a better pair of wild eyes than Jackson's; and the resourceful director, Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou [1997]), gets great mileage out of that superb Deco skyscraper, tilting it this way and that to summon up Expressionistic dread. It's too bad that The Caveman's Valentine ends up like any other second-rate mystery. If Romulus could have arrived at the solution to the murder via irrational means—picking up clues that only someone with his peculiar brain chemistry and social vantage could—then the picture might have amounted to more than just Sherlock Goes Psycho. At least the killer's unmasking doesn't happen in a drawing room full of suspects—it happens in a subway car full of suspects. Plus ça change

David Edelstein is the chief film critic for New York magazine and a film critic for NPR’s Fresh Air.