Mask movie poster

An E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial for people who need a little more grounding in reality in order to start the tears to flow, and who harbor no hopes that their hero will rise up off his deathbed and dry up the tears posthaste. The factual basis of this story, concerning a California teenager afflicted with a deformity known colloquially as "lionitis," or "the look of the lion," is both a strength and a weakness. It is the second of those things in the shapelessness and drivelessness of the narrative. But it is a strength, at the same time, in its supply of eccentric details that rescue the movie from medical and allegorical generality. Something in director Peter Bogdanovich understands full well the value of individuality, of idiosyncrasy. But something in him, too, drags him back into a dampening, deadening conventionality. The strange thing about it is that these two somethings may very well be the same thing: the auteurist taste in old movies. Bogdanovich the former film critic and curator appreciates to the fullest the cult of personality, the individual stamp, the distinguishing detail, the Whosit "touch." But that same part of him that has learned so much from the orthodox old movies now tends to filter all experience through those same movies. Thus he transforms a motorcycle gang - hell on wheels but heart on sleeve - into the latter-day reincarnation of a John Ford cavalry troop (with old Harry Carey, Jr., veteran of eleven Ford campaigns, as the legitimizer). But possibly the auteurist affinity that stands out here above all others is the one for an auteur Bogdanovich resembles even down to physical appearance: Jerry Lewis. The whole subject of the societal misfit, not forgetting the pretty girl who sees through to the beauty of his soul, might well have been sanctioned by Lewis's movies. But the treatment seems to go beyond that. Just as one might speculate that auteurist adulation of Orson Welles had led Bogdanovich to take up cigars (no doubt he truly enjoys them), it is conceivable that he has here followed Jerry Lewis all the way past the movies and into the telethons. Cher, Sam Elliott, Eric Stoltz. 1985.

Duncan Shepherd

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