The fall of 1997 was, simply put, one of the most remarkable moviegoing seasons of our time: Boogie Nights. Jackie Brown. The Sweet Hereafter. Wag the Dog. Eve's Bayou. Good Will Hunting. The Ice Storm. Amistad. As Good as It Gets. Gattaca. And so many more, culminating with what became the highest-grossing movie of all time: the long-delayed, oft-trashed, yet eventually unstoppable Titanic . Each week yielded another remarkable motion picture—sometimes two or more, taking bold risks, telling powerful stories, introducing formidable new talents, and reaffirming the gifts of master filmmakers. This series looks back at those movies, examining not only the particular merits of each, but what they told us about where movies were that fall 20 years ago, and about where movies were going.
“The summer I killed my father, I was ten years old.” Those are the first words spoken in Eve’s Bayou, and as opening lines go, you could do a helluva lot worse. This evocative memory drama was directed by first-time filmmaker Kasi Lemmons, who was best known as an actor, primarily for her supporting role as Clarice Starling’s academy roommate in The Silence Of The Lambs. The movie was selected by Roger Ebert as the single best film of 1997, which is quite a compliment considering the competition.
The ten-year-old of that opening line is Eve (Jurnee Smollett, in a performance of uncommon skill for an actor of any age). She is a quintessential middle child: Her little brother, Poe (Jake Smollett, her real brother), is mommy’s baby, and older sister Cisely (Meagan Good) is daddy’s girl. Said daddy is Louis (Samuel L. Jackson), “the best colored doctor in all Louisiana.” Sometimes Eve goes with him on house calls, and observes lonely young wives purring pleas like, “Could you give me something for the pain?” Early in the film, Eve accidentally spies her father in an intimate moment with a family friend (Lisa Nicole Carson). Eve’s upset by what she sees, but Cisely is particularly livid, for reasons that will become clear.
Eve is especially fond of her Aunt Mozelle (Debi Morgan), a woman who is, as her father delicately puts it, “not unfamiliar with the inside of a mental institution.” Mozelle has visions of future tragedies. Ironically, she can see everyone’s future but her own—the middle-aged woman is a widow three times over. “It’s not your fault they die,” Eve assures her, as her aunt reflects upon her departed husbands—literally, standing together in her bedroom mirror. Later, she tells Eve the story of how she came to lose them, and the scene plays out in the full-length mirror next to her. The glass surface becomes a window into the past.
The whole movie has that feeling. Jackson, still in his white-hot post–Pulp Fiction phase, is credited as one of the film’s producers, and its cast is packed with gifted black character actors who should’ve been stars (Lynn Whitfield, Roger Guenveur Smith, Morgan, Carson, Lemmons’s husband Vondie Curtis-Hall). Frankly, Jackson might have gone the same way, were it not for the right role or two.
Yet Eve’s finest quality is the thrill of a confident filmmaker working with material that risks silliness, and pulling it off. The film’s hinge event plays out a couple of times, from different perspectives, and Lemmons unapologetically sets it during a violent storm. She achieves the delicate balance of laying on that thunder and lightning without diminishing the scene’s power with winking or camp. She’s mixing Southern Gothic and black literary fiction traditions, over the common ground of small-town family folklore. What a rich, powerful film this is.
Mike Figgis’s One Night Stand, released one week later, was met with neither the critical nor commercial success of Eve’s Bayou, or of the writer/director’s previous picture, the 1995 Oscar-winning Leaving Las Vegas. Its title and opening credits make it look and sound like a 90s erotic thriller, which is understandable. The film's original screenplay was the work of Joe Eszterhas, whose scripts for Jagged Edge and Basic Instinct were among the most influential of that subgenre, and New Line reportedly paid $4 million for this one. But in the fall of 1995, at the same time Figgis was triumphing with Las Vegas, the one-two punch of Eszterhas’s Showgirls and Jade made him toxic. (Oddly, Glenn Plummer and Kyle McLachlan, both survivors of Showgirls, show up in One Night Stand.) Figgis ended up doing a top-to-bottom rewrite so thorough, its original writer didn’t even take a story credit. But this isn’t mere trivia. While the erotic thriller was already on the wane, One Night Stand is best seen now as fascinating variation/extension of that movement.
Its central character is Max (Wesley Snipes, very good), a family man and semi-pretentious commercial director whom we first meet in his old stomping grounds of New York City. He’s returned to visit an estranged friend (Robert Downey Jr.) who was recently diagnosed as HIV-positive. This information is all briskly conveyed in a direct-to-camera opening monologue, which Figgis identifies on the audio commentary as a Shakespearean “prologue,” so “we can just get on with the drama.” Said drama is there in the title, an encounter with Karen (Nastassja Kinski, quietly terrific), also a married, visiting-on-business type, whom he meets at his hotel when she notices the fountain pen that’s leaking in his pocket. (I know, I know.)
There’s an undeniable spark between them, and when he misses his flight, they end up going to a concert together. On the way home, they survive a mugging (“Goddamn New York,” Max fumes), and Figgis smoothly captures the vulnerability that can follow a moment of shared trauma and intensify. “Listen, I’d like you to stay,” she tells him, back at her hotel, and in an elegant series of elliptical snapshot scenes, they eventually find themselves in bed together. The sex itself is slathered with 90s clichés, sax and slo-mo and such, but the run up is something else. Figgis uses blackouts between key moments to dramatize the way time becomes elastic over the course of a long, charged, hot night. They hold out all night, but finally give in just as the day breaks.
One Night Stand’s first act is its best, since the narrative that follows relies on a couple of genuinely wild coincidences that don’t quite hold water. The film also closes in on the “friend dying of AIDS” trope, which was very of-that-moment but hasn’t aged well. The film can be accused, not unfairly, of using an ill gay man as a storytelling prop for a straight romance. But that doesn’t negate the power of Downey’s scenes—they don’t soft-soap his pain (this is not some glammed-up, Love Story bullshit)—or his performance, which includes a bedside farewell that’s tender and true, and an eyebrow raise that’s one of the finest wordless reactions I’ve ever seen.
Also worth noting is the dynamism of Downey and Snipes’s reunion conversation, which vibrates with the comfort and rhythm of a real friendship with history (“How’s your beard-wife?” Downey asks his friend, with a gleam in his eye). That’s a great scene. There’s another one much later, when Max and his wife, Mimi (Ming Na-Wen), fight after an awkward dinner party. Figgis and his actors vividly recreate the stickiness of martial argument—how two people who have been together a long while, and presumably love each other, know how to push each other’s buttons, take deliberate offense, and choose to escalate.
But Figgis most adroitly keys in on the delicacy and tentativeness of his main couple’s interactions, most of them non-verbal, and how they accumulate into an attraction that neither can ignore—not that they want to. Contrast Max and Karen’s chemistry with the lead characters in Snipes’s previous interracial romance Jungle Fever, which posits that its characters are primarily tempted by social taboos and stereotypes; One Night Stand assumes they’re hot for each other because their spouses are tiresome, and, well, they look like Wesley Snipes and Nastassja Kinski. (The truth of that matter, most of the time, is probably somewhere in between.) In fact, One Night Stand doesn’t acknowledge its identity politics at all—either with regards to Snipes or his Asian-American wife—in a way that’s either admirably post-racial or willfully ignorant, your call.
Eve’s Bayou doesn’t really mention race either, not because it’s whitewashed in any way, but because it concerns an insular community, and there are frankly no white people around to bring it up. But its themes are beyond the scope of black and white. It is a film whose subject applies to several of the best films of 1997, and many other years. “Memory is the selection of images, some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain,” go its closing lines. “Each image is like a thread, each thread woven together to make a tapestry of intricate texture. And the tapestry tells a story, and the story is our past.”
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