Tom Welles (Nicolas Cage) is a private investigator. We first see him in Miami Beach, collecting information for a powerful female senator who is keeping tabs on her married-but-philandering son. Welles is a good man, a hard-working man who loves his wife and child. He's also a flawed man: he constantly lies to his wife about sneaking cigarettes. He gets a job with a rich older widow whose now-dead husband was even better at keeping secrets from his wife. You see, after the old man kicked the proverbial bucket, she discovers his secret love of pornography when she finds a little 8mm snuff film in his safe, in which a young woman is raped and killed, presumably for erotic kicks. Even though everybody tells her snuff films are the stuff of urban legend, she needs proof that it's fake (as if that would make her feel better about her husband's sexual deviance), so she hires Welles to find the "actress" and prove it's a fake. That is the beginning of Tom Welles' descent into the hell of hardcore American pornography.

I didn't like this movie--not because it took me to places I didn't want to go, but because I thought it was stupid. I just don't like Joel Schumacher's style, which strikes me as set design over substance, and I'm not just talking those last two Batman films, either, but stuff that goes all the way back to St. Elmo's Fire and Flatliners. Schumacher represents a kind of Hollywood filmmaking that confuses me more than anything else, in that it bears absolutely no relation to "reality." I have yet to identify with anyone in a Schumacher film. It's as if they're all the ideas of characters making their way through the idea of a plot. The whole thing ends up feeling like a Hollywood pitch meeting put on film. In 8mm, Tom Welles is an "average guy" who takes a "journey into the void" and sees "the dark side of the human psyche" as well as "the dark side of himself," and "emerges a changed man." Welles is always a fictional character going on a symbolic journey, floating around the nether world of Hollywood storytelling. There's no room for ambiguity, nor is there time for it.

For example: Tom Welles is a private investigator, but the movie has little patience for the difficulties of that particular job, so it keeps handing him short cuts. When he takes a grainy image from the film (knowing the film stock had been discontinued over five years earlier), he goes to an office that collects files of missing persons and finds an exact match! What a lucky break. Likewise, he has no trouble finding the shady pornographers on a trip out to L.A. Whenever the story starts to lag, he lucks into another big break.

If I tend not to like Joel Schumacher's movies, I can see why people would want to work with him. He's such a nice guy. I say this because Columbia Pictures flew me down to L.A. for the press junket for the film. I'd even go so far as to say his instincts are good; it's his execution that lags. The movie's got a lot going for it: snuff films, porn rings, a script by the guy who wrote Seven, and Nicolas Cage.

When Schumacher entered the room where I sat at a table with nine of my closest friends (actually, they're "journalists" like me, and I have no idea who or what they write for), he started going off on Jerry Falwell outing Tinky Winky, the purple Teletubby, and what this means for Barney, asking, "Isn't it bad enough you don't have genitalia? I mean, how'd you like to be straight or gay with no genitalia?" Funny stuff.

I say his instincts are good because his favorite Nicolas Cage performance was in Vampire's Kiss. He talked about choosing this script because it was unlike anything else floating around Hollywood. He even said he would only do another Batman movie if he could adapt Frank Miller's Batman: Year One, casting an unknown 20-year-old as the crime-fighter in his first year on the job. I totally got into his energy, and can see how he could easily convince studio executives to finance his next project. Then I stepped back to realize that even though the script for 8mm might have been great, the movie is not, and even though I agree that Nicolas Cage is fabulous when he's over-the-top, here he practically sleepwalks through his performance (similar to his boring minimalist performance in City of Angels). The only person in 8mm who gives a good "Nicolas Cage" performance is Peter Stormare, who is enthusiastic and energetic as the pornographer Dino Velvet.

Nicolas Cage was at this junket too, and he was also quite charming. He talked about how Charlie Sheen was once given what he thought was a snuff film, and it disturbed him so much that he turned it over to the police, who then analyzed it and said it wasn't real. Though everybody acknowledged that snuff films are the stuff of urban legend, Cage had the best take on the pornographic subculture of 8mm, saying, "I don't really think the movie's about the porno industry, and I don't think that this movie would be a fair judgment of the porno industry. I think it's about a whole separate subject, in terms of a perverse subculture that's more into the S&M that goes too far. I don't think it's really your standard pornography."

My favorite observation on the movie, however, came up with regard to a couple of real live dominatrices who were in the (film within the) film. They brought their own slave, who paid them for the session that was filmed: they tied him up, put a blindfold over his eyes and a ball-gag in his mouth, wrapped his head in Saran Wrap with one tiny hole to breath out of, and then flogged him until welts came up. I know it's totally unfair to take the following quote out of context, but it sums up exactly my reaction to 8mm. Schumacher described the scene, and said, "You know what? It was the only real moment in the whole making of the movie, where it wasn't a movie anymore. We were watching somebody's pathology in front of us." The whole film should have been like that.

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