1992 was probably the single-most important year in the history of independent film. It’s when everything came together just right. All the talents formed a perfect symbiosis and tantalized the public with what looked like a film revolution that would rival that of the early 70’s. Sundance was still the breeding ground for young upstart directors and interesting low-budget films rather than the Cannes Jr. it slowly became. In competition that year were Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Gregg Araki’s The Living End, Allison Anders’ Gas Food Lodging and Tom DiCillo’s Johnny Suede, amongst others. Richard Linklater’s Slacker had shook the independent world to its core the previous year and a young filmmaker named Robert Rodriguez was about to shatter people’s perceptions of independent filmmaking with a film called El Mariachi. It was an exciting time to be a filmmaker and an even more exciting time to be a film buff (or so I assume, since I was running around picking my nose and drinking juice from a box at the time).
Despite the wealth of talent at hand, someone had to come out on top. Someone had to walk away with the coveted Sundance Dramatic Jury Prize. It may seem preposterous today in 2011, but Quentin Tarantino walked out of Sundance empty-handed in 1992. Instead, the Dramatic Jury Prize went to a 35-year-old filmmaker named Alexandre Rockwell. Unlike many of his Sundance peers, Rockwell was not making his feature debut: he had already directed three independent films to admittedly little success. In the Soup was a slight black-and-white comedy starring up-and-coming character actor Steve Buscemi, aging character actor (and Cassavetes regular) Seymour Cassel and Rockwell’s then-wife, Jennifer Beals (of Flashdance fame). The film came out later that year to critical acclaim but commercial indifference.
Independent film was a different beast then; commercial indifference was the standard reaction and only after the class of ’92 did studios expect the indie boom to gross like gangbusters. As impressive as that output was, everyone was looking forward. If they all could do so much with so little, imagine what they could do when handed the keys to the kingdom! The class of ’92 was given significantly more budget and freedom for their follow-ups as everyone waited with bated breath to see what they would come up with. The stakes were particularly high for Rockwell and Tarantino, who had arguably the highest-profile films of Sundance that year. Tarantino, as we all know, knocked it out of the park with Pulp Fiction and launched a career that has yet to truly disappoint.
Alexandre Rockwell made Somebody to Love. Doesn’t ring a bell? Don’t worry, it shouldn’t.
In a lot of ways, Somebody to Love represents exactly the kind of movie that would come out of the heightened expectations of Sundance ’92. It stars then-hot Rosie Perez (fresh off the success of White Men Can’t Jump) and independent poster boy Harvey Keitel, has a cast rounded out by old-timers Anthony Quinn and Sam Fuller and features a cameo by none other than Tarantino himself. Co-written with Russian director Sergey Bodrov, Somebody to Love feels a lot like an encapsulation of everything that was exciting and everything that was annoying about that period in film history. If it certainly isn’t the best mid-90’s independent film, it’s certainly in contention for the most mid-90’s independent film.
Mercedes (Perez) is a taxi dancer; she works in a seedy East L.A. club where she dances with the sketchy patrons for a dollar a dance. Taxi dancing is basically an old-timey relic from the Roaring Twenties that mixes the meat-market atmosphere of a strip club with the quaint values of a bygone era, making it perfect for a mid-90’s America that would soon become obsessed with bowling shirts and the fucking Cherry Poppin’ Daddies. Mercedes is dating the club’s sometime bartender and full-time patron Harry (Keitel), a washed-up TV star who wants nothing but to get his career back on track. Things are off to a bad start when Mercedes’ first meeting with Harry’s lecherous manager (Stanley ‘The Tootch’ Tucci) ends with her foot directly lodged in his crotch.
At the club one night, Mercedes catches the eye of shy, awkward young Ernesto (Michael DeLorenzo), a recent immigrant who lives with a ton of others in a dilapidated old house and spends his nights at the club. He soon becomes enamoured with Mercedes and begins an awkward, shuffling courtship despite the fact that she already has a man. He protects her from crotch-grabbing would-be rapists outside the club one night and she takes him home to nurse his injuries, leading him to get a full chest-plate tattoo of her name. Ernesto is a man possessed by the cinematic manifestation of l’amour fou which means that, to us normal people, he seems completely batshit crazy. Mercedes, however, seems to think he’s worth having around.
For all of its cred-building pretensions, Somebody to Love can pride itself on not falling to the ironic contrivances and hip posturing that sunk other efforts of its type. It’s surprisingly honest for a film that has Steve Buscemi as a transsexual, a Quentin Tarantino cameo and centers around a concept so painfully retro. Taxi dancing is something that I’d personally never heard of but seems like it would be a perfect fit for the same hip crowd that has brought back handlebar moustaches and jodhpurs. Rockwell treats it with none of that ironic detachment but rather with quiet nonchalance. His style is considerably more muted than some of his contemporaries (although the crane shot has a constant, nurturing presence) and he tends to let things unfold organically. For all of its bizarre contrivances on paper, Somebody to Love is led with a steady hand.
Ernesto becomes convinced that by making more money he’ll be able to seduce Mercedes, so he takes a job under Mexican gangster Anthony Quinn (whom he meets hiding in a freshly-dug grave while working his day job as a gravedigger). His newfound cash-flow allows him to take Mercedes out and treat her to lots of pretty new things. Of course, you don’t blindly take a job for the mob and expect no repercussions and Ernesto is soon in over his head. For a good hour, Somebody to Love seems like it’s going to be a fairly straightforward little romance that isn’t going to end with guns being pointed at anyone but, of course, this is the 90’s and Harvey Keitel is in it. The only way this would not have happened is if he took out his dick and, well, spoiler alert: no Keitel schlong in this one… although he does deliver a rousing rendition of ‘to be or not to be’ clad only in leopard-print underpants.
Speaking of Keitel, he’s always been a solid if limited actor. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him be outright bad, only inappropriate to the situation (i.e. his Brooklyn-accented Judas in The Last Temptation of the Christ). He’s fucking off the chain in this movie. His usual stoic delivery is traded for a weird staccato speech pattern and furious emoting that pairs the syntax of a Christopher Walken with the blink-heavy emoting of Richard Gere. This is not only a weird choice for Keitel, it’s completely distracting. Every line of dialogue, no matter how banal, is given this weird misplaced gravitas. Keitel’s no stranger to going off the rails once in a while, but here’s my theory: he plays a washed-up actor who greatly overstates his own talent and importance. The character of Harry is like a male Norma Desmond, so Keitel portrays him as if he’s constantly auditioning for something (and doing a piss-poor job of it). Soon after the scene where he soliloquizes in his underwear, Mercedes is walking down the street when an old car flips over a couple of times to reveal the wizened figure of maverick director Sam Fuller. Fuller plays a pretty thinly-veiled version of himself, a cigar-chomping filmmaker who feigns nausea and pain at the mere mention of Harry’s name. ‘He’s a horrible ham, he makes me wanna VOMIT!’ yells Fuller, shortly before dying. The scene is completely useless except for two things: Sam Fuller is awesome and he’s basically there to excuse Keitel’s whacked-out performance.
There’s a lot of events in Somebody to Love but not much actually happens. The summary on the back of the dubious, possibly illegal DVD I have describes pretty much the entire movie but makes it sound like the first act. Somebody to Love’s fatal flaw is easy to find: it’s all build-up and no payoff. I kept expecting to start caring about the characters because the entire movie feels like the first twenty minutes until, hey, there goes an ending. It’s not hard to see why the movie couldn’t find an audience: the love story is unconvincing and the characters pretty damn near impossible to grasp. It has a distinctly European vibe but a jaded American approach to dime-novel clichés, meaning it’ll alienate pretty much anyone. Unlike any of the films I reviewed here thus far, though, I was never bored. It’s an interesting though deeply unfulfilling movie.
Rockwell’s follow-up was the disastrous Four Rooms with his Sundance pals Tarantino, Anders and Rodriguez; he holds the dubious honour of having the worst segment in that movie. His career never really took off after that; although he’s made three movies since (all featuring Buscemi), they’ve struggled to find their way to any kind of release. Rockwell is a talented filmmaker, to be sure, but it seems his career trajectory mirrors Somebody to Love almost too perfectly: lots of interesting elements that ultimately fizzle out.
So why does it exist?
The film is dedicated to Federico Fellini and his wife Giulietta Masina, hugely influential figures in the history of cinema. Fellini made extremely personal yet strange films and was loved for it; Alexandre Rockwell made a personal yet strange film and was soundly ignored. The Sundance crew mirrored the New Hollywood crew in a lot of ways; while cocaine and hubris sank the 70’s bunch, self-absorption and the Weinstein sprit (Miramax had nothing to do with this film but they had everything to do with the fervour and excitement around that scene) killed a lot of movies. Not nearly as much money was spent on Somebody to Love but it was still born out of that dangerous sense of freedom that comes with suddenly being the toast of the town. Another movie from a Sundance winner was a no-brainer; this movie from a Sundance winner wasn’t. Somebody to Love is clearly a deeply personal film idea but it comes off as an impersonal and confused effort. Winning Sundance gave Rockwell a proverbial golden ticket; while Somebody to Love is certainly no Heaven’s Gate, it suffers from the same mix of hubris, talent, pretension, beauty and confusion. It was made because it seemed like a great idea until it proved not to be.