THE PORNOGRAPHER (1995) *** 1/4.
Connie the pornographer is not the central character. That place is reserved for his old friend Greyson, an artist who seems to have reached a pinnacle of fame and fortune, while Connie, once a filmmaker with a future, now makes a precarious living from "adult movies," saving money by shooting in Greyson's vast studio, the film's main venue. (Do not worry, things are neither static nor stage-like).
There are many people who orbit around Greyson, notably writer Sasha. She is brought in by Greyson's agent who arranges for her to follow Greyson everywhere so as to write a strong article about him for the influential magazine of her father,a self-centered man. Reluctantly(or is it a game?) Greyson accepts, yet does not treat her too well. But then, he treats everyone in arrogant, exploiting fashion, from a wealthy, naive lady for whom he's doing an aggressive iron gate, to a young model who provides him with sex and a collage that becomes "his" work.
He also employs a Hispanic day laborer. Oscar's stories of woe about the unspeakable crimes of a military dictatorship, become Greyson's productions. Oscar is also skilled in putting together some of those works, yet he is paid just minimum wages.
What comes through in the film's inexorable march is the Portrait of the Artist as a Monster, an egotist with insecurities that he hides from his own self. In ways I must not detail, hating himself, he hates others, loves humiliating them.
Connie too orbits around Greyson. In a surface-only paradox, it is the pornographer who has a big heart, who cheerfully and secretly takes care of dying-of-AIDS ex-lover Irene (Margot Kidder, for most of us the only familiar name in the movie), and who falls desperately, touchingly in love with streetwalker Angel.
"The Pornographer" has surprising density and an acute understanding of human strengths and weaknesses. It is at the other extreme of the many High Concept Hollywood movies that can be summed up in one sentence. Given space, one could relate the picture to some extent, but even this would miss both essence and nuances. It would give away far too many developments and surprises, including real pscyhological and behavioral suspense. I will only ask the reader to remember two principles: that of old Latin saying "homo hominis lupus" ("man is a wolf to man") and that of the Creator as Destroyer.
The movie is very well acted by convincing non-stars. Its symbolic accoutrements fit it in realistic fashion. The visuals are not overdone, yet they are striking, can evoke both loneliness and rage, artistic trendiness as well as a twisted view of life, and a kind of nihilism that fits in with the disabused mood of the 1990s. The Greyson Robey pieces, all eloquent, were created by production designer Jefferds.
There are solid and valid insights into the psyche. Note Oscar's story about the beautiful woman who after her husband had been taken away by soldiers, stood every day at the village square with a picture of her man. Its violence dovetails with the brutality of much Western art and, of course, the degradation of pornography. There are strong echoes here of Argentina's "Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo." Occasionally we can spot some deviously ironical references, such as Sasha plotting to take over her father's magazine. Her family name, Hoffner, recalls that of the Playboy mogul who turned over his empire to his daughter.
The movie was shot in 16 mm and on a mini-budget but doesn't look it. A few times I had to strain for dialogue audibility, the result, perhaps, of the tricky fine-tuning in the unfamiliar format of the preview print.
Some information about writer-director Patrick Duncan. His films include : the Chuck Norris vehicle "Code of Silence" (85, writer), the first film ever directed by University of Illinois alumnus Andy Davis who later made the mega-hits "Under Siege" and "The Fugitive" --- "A Home of our Own" starring Kathy Bates (93, director and writer)---"84 Charlie Mopic" (89, director, writer)-- "Live! From Death Row" (made for TV, 92) (director,writer)---"Nick of Time" (95, writer) --- Mr. Holland's Opus (writer)---the prize-winning HBO series "Vietnam War Story" (producer, writer of several episodes) --- the TV documentary series "Medal of Honor" (co-writer, director) --- the TV film "Live! From Death Row." Almost all of the above have received high critical praise.
Note: "The Pornographer" has a 1993 copyright, was shown at the 1994 Sundance Festival, but was released in January 1996.