After the excitement of Memorial Day weekend, I was in much need of what I call a lost day, a.k.a. total veg-out, best accomplished by staying at a friend’s house who boasts one of the largest and most esoteric movie libraries.
I am writing this just after seeing two movies-Cobra and Caravaggio-that forced me to come up with a new law of aesthetics. Sly Stallone’s Cobra, it was said, was the worst film of violence and mayhem Hollywood had ever created-something with no redeeming features. I had to see it. How can you maintain an appreciation for quality if you don’t-sometimes-probe to the nadir? Conversely, I wanted to see the critically acclaimed Caravaggio, directed by the British artist Derek Jarman, because I needed visual inspiration for a project and I love the works of the baroque master, and always was moved by the story of his tempestuous life. He killed a tennis partner in a rage, went on the lam, fled to Malta, was on the run again, got pardoned, returned to Porto Ercole, was arrested and jailed by mistake, and died day later from exhaustion after running down the beach trying to catch the boat carrying his paintings.
I remember the original poster for Cobra. The very image of sleaze. Stallone is depicted with a two-day stubble, eyes hidden by black reflective sunglasses, a safety match stuck in the side of his mouth, a scrimshaw-handled .45 revolver engraved with a spitting cobra plunged into his belt. He brandishes a machine pistol, and the tag line read, “Crime is a disease; meet the cure.”
In the film, Cobra-actually officer Cobretti of the L.A. police-slaughters an army of “psychos” who want to form a new world order by knocking off the rational citizens in America. In the first seconds, a slavering, pockmarked chap elbows his way into a superette and grunts rudely at the friendly manager. Definitely a “psycho,” who quickly proves his evil motives by shooting many of the defenseless shoppers. Cobra arrives, slinks after the “psycho,” and knives him to death. “I don’t wanna be a hero, I just wanna be involved,” he says.
And so it goes. Cobra protects a gorgeous photographer’s model with cheekbones as high as the Hollywood Hills (played very effectively by Brigitte Nielsen) from a platoon of “psychos.” He manages this without disrobing either himself or her. Amazing! He takes her to a marvelous down-and-out motel in the country and, when the gang of “psychos” arrives on motorcycles, dispatches about fifty of the brutes. We know how bad they are by their faces-all snaggle-toothed and scarred. What make-up!
The climax takes place in a steel factory, where Cobra and his girl wipe out the “psychos,” who die in a magnificent choreography of somersaults, plies, and pas de deux, accompanied by great “unngh”s, “aiee”s, and groans. One “psycho” is splashed with liquid that Cobra then ignites with his safety match, seconds after delivering one of the funniest movie lines of the ‘80’s, “You have the right to remain silent.” In the end, Cobra motorcycles placidly away with Brigitte.
I was astonished. Although it sounds it, the film is not vulgar or cynical. It is a straightforward, taut, well-crafted celluloid romp. The slaughter is so clean and unaffected that you cannot take it seriously except as a modern dance. Cobra is like a smart upscale comic book.
I wish I could say as much for Caravaggio. It is true that the photography is often beautiful. And it is true that Nigel Terry, who plays the troubled master, is a brilliant look-alike. Lena, Carravaggio’s prostitute, is serenely portrayed by Tilda Swinton. But no one knows whether Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1573-1610) was homosexual, bi-sexual or tri-sexual. Nonetheless, the director has seized upon the speculation as if it was the absolute truth, and the film slithers on from there. Beyond that, the plot, the individual scenes, the pompous monologues forced out of the mouth of the dying Caravaggio (“tearing your last breath from the stars”), are wretched.
The creators had to film in a warehouse in which contemporary street sound could be heard, so they decided to place Caravaggio in the 1940’s and to mix that look with costumes of the Renaissance (even so Caravaggio lived after the Renaissance). Boy, does it not work! Ten minutes into the movie, which looks perfectly late-sixteenth-century, Caravaggio puffs a cigarette. Later, you hear a train whistle. Still later, his sixteenth-century patron, Marchese Giustiniani, uses a pocket calculator. When Caravaggio kills Thomasoni with his knife-not, as it really happened, with a tennis racquet- the violence is worse than anything in Cobra. A drag party in a Vatican charnel house is nothing but tenth-rate Fellini Satyricon material. As for any revelation about the art of Caravaggio, there is a total vacuum. The last scene shows the sixteenth-century genius dead - in a suit with black satin lapels.
Caravaggio is touted to be innovative, shocking, cutting edge, and très chic, this according to art house audiences, but for me it slips into self-indulgence and bastardization. Cobra aims low and, in its shallow way, transcends its genre. The moral- never judge a movie by its covers.