dir. Kasi Lemmons
Opens Fri March 9 at the Varsity.
The director Kasi Lemmons presents a special case within the special case that is black female directors. Meaning, though she is a black woman director, her films aren't about black women, or, better yet, for black women by a black woman. True, the central characters in all her films are black women, but they are too preoccupied with the plot, with their lives in the fictional world--their roles as mothers and daughters, their marriages to morally lazy men, their own immortality--to stop and address the larger social problems that challenge black women in Hollywood and America in general.
The same cannot be said about Julie Dash's 1991 Daughters of the Dust, whose black female characters immediately (and brightly) reflect the fact that they are under the direction of a black woman and are super eager to express the black woman's point of view, which, for years and years, has been ignored by commercial and independent cinema. This is why Dash's film is nothing more than a celebration of its own presence and circulation in a world dominated by white male directors, while Kasi Lemmons' films are actually movies--movies that are unaware of (or indifferent to) their special status.
As a consequence, a review of a film by Julie Dash is always a complicated (if not thorny) affair for the reviewer, whereas Kasi Lemmons' films offer a lot more freedom for criticism. Which, by the way, is exactly what I'm going to do with The Caveman's Valentine: criticize it. Though it arrives with a bigger budget, bigger stars, and a story that covers a wider cultural spectrum than the restricted bourgeois spaces of Eve's Bayou (Lemmons' first film), it is not a success. Indeed, it's a failure. For the first 30 minutes, everything is exciting; then, after a scene that involves a trip to the countryside, things start to fall apart until the whole structure collapses. And all we are left with are the ruins of something that was supposed to be great.
The movie is about a madman named Romulus Ledbetter (played by Samuel L. Jackson), who lives in a cave in Central Park. Romulus was not always mad. He was once a promising classical pianist who played the kind of piano music that the jazz-genius Cecil Taylor plays: sudden, charged, thrilling, erratic. One winter morning, mad Romulus finds a frozen corpse in a tree by his cave. It turns out that the body once belonged to a beautiful young gay teen who was a model for a sadistic artist named David Leppenraub (Colm Feore), who has the fame of Annie Leibovitz, the morals of Robert Mapplethorpe, and the forehead of Keith Haring. Romulus senses something big is at hand and sets out to solve the murder.
Though it's a classical whodunit set the in the decadent sphere of New York's art elite (a world that the mad caveman has access to because he's a brilliant classical pianist), the process of solving the mystery leads not only to the person who committed the murder, but more importantly to a warm, glowing place where the mad father is finally forgiven by his bitter daughter (the enchantingly beautiful Aunjanue Ellis), who happens to be a police officer working on the case. In this respect, The Caveman's Valentine is much like Eve's Bayou, which was also about a failed father (again played by Samuel L. Jackson) and his disappointed daughter.
Despite the flaws, The Caveman's Valentine contains some worthy imagery, particularly the long interracial sex sequence between Samuel L. Jackson and Ann Magnuson, who plays David Leppenraub's erotically liberal sister Moira. In terms of photographing the form and movements of black/white sex, the scene has about it a beauty that does not exist anywhere else in cinema. In fact, it's quite a relief to see an interracial scene that is charged with poetry rather than danger or guilt (as is the case with Steven Soderbergh's terrible Traffic--which has a drug dealer aggressively fucking a dazed teenage girl from the suburbs). But, sadly, even these marvelous images cannot hide or obscure the fact that the film is a failure. Nevertheless, I hope we don't have to wait another four years for Kasi Lemmons' next film; she is an important director and deserves room to fail and room to succeed.