8MM - rated - TEPID

Here's a little film which the critics seemed to hate, and yet I found it fascinating, and compelling. In fact its images and ideas have stayed in my mind, vivid and strong. Certainly it has some major problems - and its director seems peculiarly badly suited to the intelligent material of the screenplay. But on the other hand, who better to explore the dark, down and dirty world of the porno film than Joel Schumacher, who directed Batman and Robin (1997), Batman Forever (1995), A Time to Kill (1996), Falling Down (1993), Flatliners (1990) and The Lost Boys (1987) among many others? And Schumacher certainly does have a vivid visual way about him: he came to direction through costume and production design.

In 8MM our hero is Tom Welles (Nicholas Cage). He seems a dependable and solid family man, who loves his wife and his child and lives in the suburbs. He pursues a reasonable living by engaging in surveillance, which he tells us, he "thought... was the future". Of course, he's a private dick and this is a film noir. As in most films noir, our hero, Tom is a flawed man. He lies (badly) to his wife about his smoking, about how long he'll be away on business. She nags him constantly, yet he grimly phones her nearly every night telling her that he loves her. He seems genuinely to love his baby, however, and that is his saving grace. He also steals evidence, presents false credentials to whomever suits him and lies about who he is and who his clients are.

Tom is given a case which could make his career, but it takes him into the sleazy world of the sex industry and porno film-making (can this be the same porno industry that was so rosily recalled by Paul Anderson in Boogie Nights ?). Director Joel Schumacher doesn't take long to hit us over the head with his theme. "Dance with the devil and the devil don't change. The devil changes you" says Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Max California, a porn-shop clerk who himself has been changed from an aspiring musician into a vendor of sexual pleasure.

And Tom does change. Or does he? In a blood-soaked climax,Tom takes a terrible revenge. Is he justified? These are the questions the screenplay raises.

But Schumacher doesn't have time for such questions. In an interview published in Premiere magazine ('Voyeurs, Guns and Money', March 1999, p 65) Schumacher considers the fact that many of his films (Falling Down, A Time to Kill & 8MM, for example) have a streak of vigilantism running through them "I'd love to take the law into my own hands" he says . And later "What's wrong with a story about someone who, through his own repulsion and indignation over this, takes action? Why not? Because it might make people uncomfortable? Well, so what?"

Scriptwriter Andrew Kevin Walker (The Game , 1997, uncredited, Se7en 1995) has taken great pains to show us that Tom was already on a slippery slope. He was already a liar, a cheat, and adept in the skills of deception and spying. He is a professional voyeur, as a matter of fact. Was he particularly susceptible to evil, or did his exposure to evil breed more evil? Schumacher ignores these questions and instead presents us with the rather more pedestrian spectacle of "righteous indignation".

But Walker and Stomacher do make one stunning statement about their view of the nature of evil, and they put it in the mouth of one of the bizarre character actors in the bad bad films. Machine, a legendary porno actor who wields a mean knife by way of film narrative says, in his death throes: "There's no mystery. The things I do I do them because I want to - I like to. Mommy didn't beat me. Daddy didn't rape me." Now that's frightening!

This is a stylish, intriguing and compelling movie which could so easily have been stylish, intriguing, compelling and intelligent. This lack of intelligence is why I'm giving it a lower rating than this review would seem to justify. I gather that there has been some falling-out between the director and the scriptwriter, and that Cage wanted an optimistic ending. This could explain some of the weaknesses , particularly in the second half of the movie. We also have an over-the-top performance by Peter Stormare (the silent killer in Fargo) as Dino Velvet, a porno "auteur," and a few too many clichés taking the place of reality in the porno industry (I'm only guessing here, but I don't imagine that in real porno films the crossbow features too regularly).

Still, Cage's performance is generally very good - he makes you uncomfortable, and Schumacher generally captures the atmosphere of sleaze and evil pretty well, aided by some striking Arabic music. In fact, the film's original music was so striking, I made a mental note of the composer's name, Mychael Danna, and looked himm up afterwards. Turns out he's responsible for the music of two of my favourite films of 1997: The Ice Storm (Ang Lee) and The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan). He also composed the music for Egoyan's films The Adjuster (1991) and Exotica. (1994).

So don't write this film off. It continues to fascinate me. I haven't even mentioned the question of how much of a snuff movie viewers ofthis film should see, or to ask whether there are some subjects that films can't show. It is interesting to muse on these questions, and it is also interesting to speculate about what this film might have been like had it been directed by someone with both a darkly stylish imagination and a great intelligence, say, Stanley Kubrick, or even Bob Fosse.