Sunday, December 04, 2005

Bad Lieutenant (1992)

I sometimes dream about owning a movie theatre. Not one of those twenty-four screen, stadium seating monstrosities that are designed to pack as many screenings of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on opening weekend for the popcorn gobbling masses, or a run down "arthouse" theatre that has an espresso machine behind the bar and survives solely by city art foundation grants. No, my hypothetical Psycho Dave Cinema 4 is a well kept, and reasonably clean (if not state-of-the-art) place that plays only the movies I want, when I want, in the order I want them to. It would be there only as a monument to my often dubious taste in movies, and I imagine it attracting a decent, if not sell out, crowd of regulars who will come by to watch old movies and perhaps buy some reasonably priced popcorn and beer (like I said, this theatre is just a figment of my imagination.)

Since Psycho Dave Cinema 4 is completely an exercise in ego and not profitability, I spend most of my time imagining the programming more the prices. More importantly, what would make a great double-feature. Some film combinations are obvious; you could show A Better Tomorrow and A Better Tomorrow II back to back in your "Old School John Woo" series. Or you could go for the trickier task of counter-programming; something like featuring Al Pacino's masterful underacting in The Godfather Part II with his classic overacting in Scarface. The point of pairing the two movies is for one to reflect on the other in a way that will bring them to a new light. Perhaps it works, perhaps it falls flat on its face. Either way, you have to find some way to justify having people sit in cramped seats for about four hours a pop.

Sometimes I get perverse ideas for double-features, like following Birth of a Nation with Malcolm X, or perhaps Triumph of the Will with Schindler's List. Those would be done primarily for the "what the fuck?" factor. When I was watching my DVD for Bad Lieutenant last night, I got to thinking...the perfect movie to program this with would be The Passion of The Christ.

Of course, anyone whose seen both of these movies knows that they are intrinsically opposed to each other. Where The Passion is being pimped as required viewing at many a congregation, Bad Lieutenant is more likely to start a Christian Coalition letter writing campaign. But I propose that the two movies share a core sensibility; namely their gratuitiousness and their heavy-fisted theme of Catholic guilt.

Shock value has a tendency to wear off over time. While I've only seen The Passion once (which was quite enough, thank you) I'm sure that repeat viewings would take the edge off its Fangoria-Goes-To-Sunday-School sensibility. I've watched Bad Lieutenant many times since I first came across it over ten years ago. While the "shock" has diminished over time, it still retains its ability to make me squirm.

The plot for the uninitiated. Basically it follows Harvey Keitel's character (known only in the movie as the Lieutenant) final swirl in what one can imagine has been a fairly long downward spiral. Most of the movie's running time is dedicated to piling on the number of sins he can commit: snorting coke in the car after dropping his kids off at school, selling coke he stole out of the evidence locker to a street dealer, running up a humungous debt to the mob gambling on the World Series, smoking crack, shooting heroin, having a drunken full-frontal nervous breakdown with a couple of hookers, pretty much ignoring any "crimes" that occur in his midst, and most notoriously, getting two underage girls from Jersey to "show him how they suck a cock."

Oh, and the audience also gets treated to a scene involving a nun getting raped by two crackheads, complete with beaver shots.

Abel Ferrera, (who directed such exploitation films as Ms. 45, The Driller Killer, and the over-the-top gangster film The King of New York) has been described as "The Downtown Scorcese" with his dark and gritty depictions of New York. While Scorcese is hardly subtle with his Catholicism, Ferrera hits it over your head like a sledgehammer. In case you didn't get that the movie is a meditation on sin and forgiveness, Jesus himself makes two cameos just to grab you by your hair and yell "symbolism!", before magically turning into an incredulous looking black lady. The way the nun (who, might I add, is way too attractive to be a nun) forgives her attackers comes off as way too pat and pious, and most of the movie seems dedicated just to showing how low the despicable Lieutenant can go.

While most of drug abuse, stealing, and whore-fucking in the movie feels like exploitation for exploitation's sake, the larger point of Bad Lieutenant is served by setting the moral bar extremely low. How else could smoking crack with a couple of rapists, then allowing them to skip town with stolen money seem like an act of redemption?

The movie is a showcase role for Harvey Keitel and arguably his greatest. The fact that it is a role that few actors would have the balls to take on makes it doubly impressive, and my does Keitel (literally) let those balls show. His pathetic mewling at the end is an uneasy blend of the comic and the tragic, and the scene with the two girls from Jersey he pulls over is only trumped by the rape scene in Irreversible as drawn out cinematic torture.

My only gripe regarding the DVD release (and actually this has to do with the laserdisc and all the VHS editions after the first) is the lack of Schooly D's "Signifying Rapper", which is noticably absent from several areas of the film. It was removed because it contained a prominent, and unlicensed riff from "Kashmir". You would think that after thirteen years in release, someone might have just given Led Zepplin the money to get it back in the film. Also, I would have liked a commentary track or a documentary with Ferrera and especially Keitel. I usually don't give a shit about "special features", but this movie deserves them more than, say, Deuce Bigalow.

Seeing as the Bible itself is filled with violence and moral ambiguity, one can make an argument that Bad Lieutenant should be shown in Sunday Schools. It certainly elucidates the teachings of Christ more effectively than the extremely dogmatic, yet content free The Passion of The Christ. Of course, this hour and a half long trip through Hell wouldn't be shown within a mile of a church, which makes it more palatable to atheists like me.


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