HORSES ARE PRETTY
A film review by Eric Scharf
Rating: **½ (out of ****)
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Minnie Driver, Ben Gazzara, Benicio Del Toro
They call it the sophomore slump. A promising filmmaker follows a breakout film with a disappointment, often both financially as well as critically. Altman and Images. Harlin and Die Hard 2. Now Christie and Horses Are Pretty. When Christie debuted with Oogie Boogie Booger, she was met with at first outrage and then unqualified admiration from all corners of the industry. Abbas Kiarostami was rumored to be interested in doing a collaboration with Christie, and Lars von Trier made an unheard-of flight to Toronto to ask her to look over the script for Idiots. Oogie Boogie Booger's groundbreaking use of dialogue and pacing spawned a host of imitators, from Nil By Mouth to South Park. I was overjoyed when I heard that Miramax had agreed to distribute Christie's next three films.
Horses Are Pretty represents that growth period that some (but not, alas, all) auteurs seem to have to endure as they struggle to hold onto their voice while incorporating fresh ideas. Given the vastly increased resources at her disposal, Christie wandered away from her strengths, such as the unity of composition and dialogue. On Oogie Boogie Booger Christie restricted her storyboarding to the eight colors found in the Crayola Kid's First Box, resulting in the stark and gripping relationships that crowded out archaic notions of character arc. Horses Are Pretty suffers from dilution of composition as we are introduced to a near-endless stream of characters whose plot contribution is negligible and whose dialogue is unpleasantly repetitive. I sensed that Christie might have been trying to ape Mamet here, an unfortunate choice of role models. Bringing on John Sayles certainly must have helped, and I would like to think it was Christie's own decision to do so.
Johnny (Samuel L. Jackson) is the caretaker of an asylum for retired and insane horse jockeys, unfortunately located next to the county fairground. When the circus comes to town, Johnny's otherwise simple task of reining in the dreams and fantasies of his charges is complicated by the proximity of the circus ringmaster, Freddie (Ben Gazzara). At first, Freddy doesn't even speak to Johnny or any of the patients who managed to slip the bridle and wander into the neighboring big top. But when Bobby (Benicio Del Toro), who only speaks his consonant-impoverished babble, keens fervently at Freddie, Freddie responds soothingly in identical patois. Bobby's wife Susie (Minnie Driver) is relieved to find someone who can ease her husband's pain, although she shares Johnny's misgivings about the mysterious man in the yellow hat. When the circus employees begin dying in increasingly gruesome accidents, Freddy connives at replacing them with Johnny's patients, much to Johnny's dismay.
This quartet of players is an exponential increase in relationships over the exquisitely tight tension between Janeane Garofolo and Lili Taylor in Oogie Boogie Booger. Still, I'm certain Christie would have pulled it off had she not freighted the film with several superfluous scenes of minor characters whose lines seem to serve as a Chorus, but instead come off as trite. Two circus hands (Eric Stolz and Stellan Skarsgård) cleaning up after the show: "Horse poo smells better than elephant poo." "But elephant poo is easier to throw." (demonstrates). Andrew Sarris claims this represents Christie's advocacy of "expropriative decomposition in post-structuralist cinema." I invite Sarris to grab a shovel and join me at the stables for an evening of "coprophagic labor" and see just how willing he is to part with his privilege.
One aspect of Horses Are Pretty where Christie continues to set new standards is in her soundtrack. The sampling of the Fisher-Price Barnyard and Big Top Suites is really without peer in contemporary filmmaking. 1995 nostalgia is nowhere more deeply invoked than the Goosebumps theme during the opening credits. And is anyone unmoved by the vision of Johnny discovering the body one of his patients to the strains of "On Top of Spaghetti", sung by Christie herself?
Christie has also allowed herself to be swept up in the frustrating trend of bloated length. Oogie Boogie Booger came in at 42 minutes, and Christie was more than able to say everything she wanted to say. Only loss of discipline can explain Horses Are Pretty's extravagant running time of 65 minutes. I for one could have easily done without the epilogue montage from the birthday party of Christie's brother Timmy. This is not to say that all criticisms of Christie's production are valid; I discount and despise the rumor that Christie agreed to change the food fight scene in exchange for a rare Antonioni Beanie Baby.
Despite its flaws, Horses Are Pretty is orders of magnitude more original and profound than such formulaic offerings as Henry Fool and Buffalo '66. I'm betting that Christie has weathered her encounter with Mammon with her vision intact, and that her next project, My Cookie!, a black-and-white period piece set in Victorian England, will give her the opportunity to explore her concepts of food and how it relates to the symbolism of the family drama as expressed in tea time. Both Oogie Boogie Booger and Horses Are Pretty reassure me that, so long as the bankrupt philosophies of high modernism and camp post-modernism fling poop at each other and hold their noses in the air, Christie will be there, aiming her camera up their nostrils.