Produced by Stuart Oken and Daniel A. Sherkow
Directed by James Lapine
Screenplay by Sarah Kernochan
Distributed by Hemdale Films
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Produced and directed by James Cameron
Screenplay by James Cameron and William Wisher A Carolco Picture
Released by Tri-Star
Sumer was icumen in. The air conditioners were humming and the monstro-humungus blockbusters were opening. The biggest of the monsters, the Mount Pinatubo of the summer releases, was Terminator 2, the costs of which the producers denied were in excess of $100 million. Nobody argued, though, that this wasn’t the most expensive film in history. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s fee alone was considerably more than the $6 million that represented the total budget of the original Terminator. But as the slogan in the ads explained, in naked and indifferent menace, “It’s Nothing Personal.”
Art, though, wants to be personal, has to engage something in the souls of those of us in the audience who are not bankers and accountants. Indeed, it was in a search for something to go with my discussion of Terminator 2 that I went to see Impromptu, which wasn’t a great movie in any sense, but was charming, intriguing, pretty to look at, fun to think about for a while—in other words, what any reasonable person might imagine as the ideal summer flick.
It’s a pastiche, really, less a film about Chopin, George Sand, Franz Liszt, Alfred de Musset, and Eugene Delacroix than a send-up that uses those figures as large puppets to represent notions about sincerity, freedom, and other such fluffy abstractions. In its way, the film is a pastoral, with Chopin and Sand as versions of the old Meliboeus and Tityrus figures. We are to believe in them, but only up to a point. They say and do impish and suggestive things the real Chopin and Sand are not likely to have said or done, but that is perfectly agreeable. The fun is as much in the discontinuities and improbabilities as it is in the occasional accuracies of manner or dress.
There are two significant dramas that go on more or less simultaneously, one having to do with the relation of the artists (who are the aristocracy of the mind) with the nobility (of money and land and, at least in theory, of the sword and blood). The embourgeoisement of the French nobility produced a set of mostly cloddish if high-living types not much different from the American robber barons who came along a little later in the century. These grandees were stuck out there in their châteaux and, out of boredom—their own or their wives’—invited celebrities from Paris to come and be entertaining. Delacroix (Ralph Brown) is quite cynical about this bargain in which the artists get free food and lodging for a week or so, and all that is required of them is that they be entertaining at table, while Musset (played with campy zest by Mandy Patinkin) tests the limits of their hosts’ patience by behaving as badly as possible—which is to say, very badly indeed. Much of the comic business of the film arises from the mutual entertainment of this week in the country where the artists are the guests of the Due and Duchesse d’Antan. We get a fairly witty and elegant series of farcical scenes shot at the handsome Chateau des Briottières, and for most moviemakers, this would have been a sufficiently lofty achievement.
There is also a meditation on gender roles in sexuality, which might have been tiresome except that Judy Davis, as Sand, flirts (and more than flirts) with homeliness, does a kind of Glenda Jackson imitation in which she manages to come very close to the repellant. Not surprisingly, the delicate Chopin (Hugh Grant) is as wary of her as a male mantis would be at the invitation of a female of the species. Grant’s Chopin is an attractive counterpart to Davis’s Sand: where she is masculine and assertive, he is feminine, delicate, and elusive. He looks a little like a younger Senator Kerry, and does a Polish accent that lapses on occasion into Hungarian so that he sounds oddly like Bela Lugosi. But realism is irrelevant here. The thrust and focus are elsewhere, which is a hard trick to turn in film, where the eye is so much easier to engage than the brain.
What these lives were about was authenticity or, to put it another way, untrammeled romantic excess as a route to that rigorous ideal. The film’s jokes and more earnest high- and low-jinx are not merely silly, then, but all bear in one way or another on this legitimate theme. We watch as Judy Davis improves and, in nervy counterpoint, Bernadette Peters falls apart. She plays the Comtesse Marie d’Agoult, Liszt’s mistress who is inevitably coarsened and embittered by her loss of status in society, her bearing of too many children, and the fecklessness of her somewhat flighty lover.
There are awkward moments, weird gestures that don’t quite work. One such scene is that in which for the first time Judy Davis hears Chopin playing the piano. She can’t see him, but the music through a closed door is nonetheless affecting, and we watch while, in a rapture that is supposed to demonstrate her passionate nature and good taste, she strokes, fondles, caresses, and makes extravagant love to the door. Tibullus has an ode in which he addresses Delia’s door, but even with the intention to be absurd, he doesn’t carry the conceit to anything like this length.
Such excesses are forgivable, however. The credits for director James Lapine include the Stephen Sondheim musicals Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods, and this background is probably more useful (or at least less confining) than the usual training of television’s fast-cut realism. Excess is, after all, one of the subjects here. We see, at the end, Sand and Chopin driving off together to his consumptive love-death in Corsica, and the scene is a cheerful one, a sunny, happy moment in which small gestures figure large meanings. Chopin coughs and closes the carriage window; Sand opens the window to let in the fresh air he fears will kill him. It’s lovely and neat, apparently effortless and . . . impromptu. Yes!
Astonishingly enough, the small gestures in Terminator 2 are those that are most effective and make the film work. Its level of mayhem and carnage is extraordinarily high, as one might expect in a pricey repetition of an earlier success. What we get, however, is a kind of send-up, although at these levels of production expense, it becomes difficult to distinguish camp from the authentic article. But how else is the minimally sophisticated moviegoer to react when Arnold Schwarzenegger, the villain from the earlier film, returns, again as a cyborg (i.e., cybernetic organism), but this time as the instrument of good and, not incidentally, as the underdog? There is a newer model now, the dreadful T-1000 that has been sent back in time to kill the young John Connor and prevent him from growing up to lead the humans in their revolt against the wicked machinery of Skynet.
This is all utter piffle, of course. But what non-piffle is there left for us to agree on or believe in? We are in favor of peace and against war, just as we are generally loyal to the human species and distrustful of-computers and machines. So in this crusade to keep the world safe for humankind, we root for the kid who is destined to save the world and his brave and selfless mother (just a touch of Christianity here, perhaps?). In the course of business, we watch the machines slug it out, or not merely slug but shoot, dismember. crush, crash, incinerate, freeze, melt, boil, and otherwise annoy—for they have a nasty ability to repair themselves almost.instantly. They refuse to stay maimed or killed, reorganizing themselves, switching to alternate power sources, and continuing on their relentlessly programmed way.
This is by no means a philosophical film. Indeed, with the strenuous pace of its vehicular recklessness and its flair for mannerist trauma, the prevention of thought may well be one of its purposes. There are, nonetheless, a few general assumptions that constitute the foundation of the violent dazzle on the screen. One is that psychiatrists are cruel, stupid, and dangerous. Indeed, all intellection is to some degree alien and suspicious—the villains of the world who are going to blunder along until they have destroyed civilization as we know it turn out to be the computer wizards at Cyberdyne. The good guys are the innocent kids and the women, and to keep anyone from missing that nuance, Sarah Connor proclaims to some poor male, “You can’t create a life. All you create is death.”
Well, life is better than death, isn’t it? But if humans are in any sense morally superior to cyborgs, it is not because we behave any better than they do but . . . because we are able to cry. Schwarzenegger is curious about the way water comes down from the eyes of the humans at certain moments—as are the screenwriters, who wring what advantage they can from this set-up to get some emotional lift at the ending.
That ending is interesting. The Terminator concluded in some unspecified but highly automated factory in which Sarah crushed her attacker in a monstrous stamping machine. Now instead of that vague widget factory, we get a steel mill with its convenient furnaces and pools of molten metal. But the level of our expectations has by this time risen well beyond anything that either stunt men or special effects experts can contrive for us. The movie is now required to reach out to the primitive resources of emotion, which are accessible only in the old-fashioned ways. Schwarzenegger’s Terminator has to express as well as it can a kind of affection and loyalty, sacrificing itself, because its duty is to do so and also its inclination—or what would be its inclination if it were human.
The real drama, then, is an emotional one, and the struggle is not with Cyberdyne and the T-1000, but within the Terminator‘s own Central Processing Unit. Strong, it may be, but it is also oafish and bumbling, an emotional naif who is always getting nuances wrong and must learn from a pre-teenage kid how to talk and how to love. The Clint Eastwood style of wisecrack just before or after an act of violence is now famous (“Go ahead. Make my day!”) but here Schwarzenegger’s fanfare quip (“Hasta la vista, baby!“) has a further spin inasmuch as this is what he has learned to say from the kid. His expression, then, is one of loyalty and of bonding.
Schwarzenegger’s grotesque shape and peculiar diction make him exactly the right kind of vessel for this odd formulation. We are amused but also feel a little sorry for him, the poor, big, muscle-bound yutz, who has to do these absurd things. His adversary, the T-IOOO, is small, lithe, conventionally good-looking, an improved model. Size and strength, then, having nothing to do with one another, Schwarzenegger’s physique is pointless and even demode. He blunders along, verging on ridiculousness as the kid tries to teach him how to talk, and how to behave. This is where the movie’s energy comes from. At one point, Schwarzenegger picks up some huge piece of ordinance, a machine gun anyone else would operate from a tripod but that he will brandish and shoot one-handed, as if it were a pistol. The kid looks at him, notes the image of the outsize body and the outsize gun, and says, “It’s definitely you.” It’s a funny line, expressing as it does the audience’s all but unspeakable sympathy for the tristesse of Schwarzenegger’s ungainliness.
It was right, then, that Schwarzenegger be paid so handsomely—for giving the movie more of its appeal than any $30 million’s worth of wrecked cars, trucks, and helicopters. “How much did you get?” one television interviewer asked him, just a tad too crudely, but Schwarzenegger only grinned and said, equably enough, “Blenty.”