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Let's Go Get Stoned 

A new Ray Charles biopic plays by the rules while an indie flick breaks them

There's a moment maybe 30 or 40 minutes into Ray, Taylor Hackford's biopic about Ray Charles, when the narrative's lit fuse seems to hit cinematic gunpowder. We're still in the early stages of the blind singer's career at this point. Having survived a poor Southern upbringing, Ray (Jamie Foxx) has also made it past playing juke joints around the country and landed himself a real recording contract. He's in the studio laying down tracks, and when he launches into a song called ³Mess Around,² everything just takes off: Foxx's terrific performance hits warp speed, the music absolutely cooks, and the movie's camerawork and editing dazzle with their polished, exuberant syncopation. "Aha!" I thought. "This is what we've been waiting for." And indeed it was. But alas, it's a false cue. Rather than taking off with this incandescent scene, Ray settles back into its comfortable, methodical groove and, in essence, never leaves there for the rest of its two and a half hour length. You can groove with it or not. Just don't expect it ever again to equal the catalytic kick of "Mess Around."

In registering a measure of disappointment with Ray, I should admit a couple of things right off. First, my expectations were very high. A biopic of the legendary Charles, starring the brilliant Jamie Foxx, sounded like it had to be one of the best Hollywood movies of the year. Second, Ray is in fact not a bad film at all. Its production design and cinematography are absolutely first-rate; Taylor Hackford's respectful direction exhibits both conviction and taste; and the performances, especially Foxx's masterful turn as Charles, leave nothing to be desired. Yet you hope all this will add up to something more than a conventional Hollywood biopic, and Ray, in ending up less than the sum of its handsome parts, reminds you how confining this genre's inherent limitations tend to be.

Biopics of musical stars, of course, begin with an unstated liability. We want them to transport us in the same very subjective ways their subject's music does, yet movies have a hard time finding a workable correlation between three minutes of pop bliss and 90 minutes (or more) of biographical narrative. But even if you remove the music from this equation, there's still a big problem: the problem of the biopic.

Quite simply, most people's lives have little in the way of dramatic shape. They are episodic, repetitious and often monotonous. In a case like Ray Charles, musical giant though he was, that means year after year of recording, touring, going home briefly, then starting the whole cycle again. Watching Ray made me realize why my favorite musical biopics, such The Buddy Holly Story and Oliver Stone's The Doors, tend to focus on stars who died young. Foreshortened mortality may be tragic, but it sure makes for a tight, gripping dramatic arc.

These days, musical biopics also face competition from the documentary realm. VH-1's successful and influential Behind the Music series, especially, poses an automatic question for any new dramatic bio like Ray: Would the same material be better served by nonfiction treatment? Apart from the element of authenticity that documentaries provide, Behind the Music's approach adds a dose of pulp fun by delving into the stars' inevitable career-spoiling peccadilloes and personal failings--a way of simultaneously kidding and indulging the viewer's thirst for tabloid trashiness. How can an old-fashioned biopic hope to compete?

When Ray premiered at this year's Toronto Film Festival, the initial reactions applauded its "unusual" candor in depicting Charles' long heroin addiction and constant extramarital dallying. Excuse me, but those aspects of the story--which are not at all sensationalized--are unusual only when measured against the polite biopics of yesteryear (and I do mean before Clint Eastwood's Bird and other frank views of the drug underworld). In the era of Behind the Music, they are not so much daring as de rigeur. And to be frank, picturing Ray without them is like imagining a gumbo without any spices or seasoning. Reduced to its chronicle of career developments, the film would be a very bland stew indeed.

The story focuses on the period from the late '40s through the '60s, when Charles went from being a backwoods unknown to an international star. It adopts the forgivable but overused and ultimately hackneyed device of repeatedly flashing back to a traumatic incident in his childhood, which presumably is meant to explain not only his blindness but his later waywardness with women and drugs. In spite of all this, though, Ray doesn't come across as interestingly complex or tormented, but as just another musician whose personal problems are standard professional liabilities. At least his junk habit isn't blamed on blindness.

From a technical standpoint, Jamie Foxx's vivid incarnation of Charles could not be more praiseworthy. Indeed, it's the kind of performance made to win awards. Will it snag him next spring's Best Actor Oscar? At this point it looks like his competition may include Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine, Liam Neeson in Kinsey, Colin Farrell in Alexander, Paul Giamatti in Sideways and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator. If I had to wager now, though, I'd bet his closest rival will be Johnny Depp as J.M. Barrie in Finally Neverland. May the best portrait of a haunted artist win.

If you know that Shane Carruth's Primer won the grand prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, then you won't be surprised that it's a scrappy little indie no-budgeter cast with and made by unknowns. What is surprising is that it's such an unrelenting exercise in bafflement to watch. I mean, behold a film that remains almost totally opaque from beginning to end, forcing the viewer to wonder, "What the hell is going on here?"

The next question, of course, is what to make of that opacity. Some people, perhaps, will be annoyed enough to want their money back. Though I understand that reaction, I was consistently intrigued with Primer's nervy, ragged, pushing-the-envelope approach to film language. About a half-hour in, I thought, "If the filmmaker doesn't clarify the story before long, it's going to drive me bananas." But by the end of the film, I was a fascinated and even rather impressed that writer-director Carruth, a 20-something first-timer, had managed to keep me engaged while frustrating all my normal expectations for narrative clarity.

The other thing to say about Primer is that, in both sensibility and subject, it's the year's big geek-fest, a film to recommend to any guy who devotes most of his free time to computers or science magazines. Once you get a handle on its story (which, as noted, is quite a challenge), it turns out to be a sci-fi yarn, about time travel no less. Given that the movie seems destined to develop a cult, I'm sure its devotees will make great claims for the profundity and originality of Carruth's script. Though my understanding of the story is owed mostly to reading its press notes afterward (too bad these aren't handed out as patrons exit the theater), I'd respond that it's no more ingenious than your typical Twilight Zone or Star Trek episode. What's distinctive is the way Carruth thoroughly, provocatively muddies our approach to it.

When the movie opens, we're outside a suburban garage looking in. (The blandly anonymous Middle American settings and slightly voyeuristic angle of view persist throughout.) Inside are four young guys whose shirt-and-tie demeanor suggests corporate drones. They're heatedly discussing something they're working on. In subsequent scenes the four guys reduce to two (played by Carruth and David Sullivan) but the mysterious tinkering and air of science-project intensity continue. Eventually, if we're extremely attentive and astute, we will puzzle out that these guys have developed a time-travel machine, one which doesn't deliver them to ancient Rome (only very nearby chronological destinations are feasible, apparently) but which has the side effect of splitting them into two selves. (Don't ask me to explain that. I don't understand it either.)

Carruth supposedly got the movie in the can for the shoestring budget of $7,000. He shot it on Super-16 and the result is a great, very grainy and raw look that provides an apt visual correlative for the narrative murkiness.

These days, a certain degree of storytelling murk is fashionable. It used to be that screenplays moved from act one to denouement like ocean liners intent on delivering the viewer across a placid sea in maximum comfort. Currently, in films ranging from Memento to Kill Bill, the procedure is more like tossing viewers into a raging sea and hoping they enjoy figuring out where the nearest shores lies and swimming frantically for it. In the realm of art films, though, this is hardly a recent development. At least since the era of Last Year at Marienbad, L'Avventura, Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, et al., one definition of cinematic modernism has been a film that withholds or disarranges the basic points of narrative orientation that most movies supply unquestioningly.

Carruth's models are closer to home. He says he was inspired by '70s American films like The Conversation and All the President's Men, which involve the viewer in elaborate narrative puzzles. Those are indeed worthy inspirations, and Carruth's homage at least deserves a prize for surpassing cheekiness. It'll be interesting to see if his sophomore effort ventures any closer to old-fashioned intelligibility. x

  • A new Ray Charles biopic plays by the rules while an indie flick breaks them

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