Friday, August 22, 2008

Friedkin Friday: Jade (1995)

In the early 1990s, outspoken screenwriter Joe Eszterhas was the toast of Hollywood.

The writer behind the mega-hit Basic Instinct (1992) quickly became the highest-paid screenwriter in history, not to mention one of the most controversial. And for good reason. His scripts enthusiastically blended brutal violence with lurid sex, and his outlook on women was either blatantly misogynist or extremely feminist, depending on your interpretation. Plus his movies often featured craven bi-sexuals and lesbians.

Lots of lesbians.

Eszterhas contributed further "erotic" thrillers -- such as Sliver (1993) -- to Hollywood's revival and re-interpretation of the film noir aesthetic...but with pumped-up, acrobatic sex scenes, macho dialogue, and strange murders aplenty. The result? Suddenly, cineplexes were jammed-packed with so-called "sexy" thrillers like Madonna's (atrocious) Body of Evidence (1993), the equally-moribund Whispers in the Dark (1992) and the uninspiring Final Analysis (1992).

However, by the half-way point of the Age of Clinton (1995), the trend had burned itself out, just like the hot candle wax poured on Willem Dafoe's privates by Madonna in Body of Evidence. Eszterhas's remarkable fortunes were notably reversed, and the writer shepherded two notorious bombs to theaters, the ridiculous and campy (though extremely enjoyable...) Showgirls [1994]) and the dead-on-arrival William Friedkin film, Jade (1995).

The outline -- the outline, mind you -- of Jade was purchased by Paramount's Sherry Lansing (Friedkin's wife) for a whopping 2.5 million dollars. The final film, however, was a Waterloo for all involved. Jade only grossed ten million dollars against a fifty million dollar budget, and was almost universally critically-reviled. Most of the animosity, however, was directed at Ezsterhas's turgid script rather than Friedkin's direction. It's also clear in retrospect that Jade - although no masterpiece (and not in the same class as Sorcerer, Cruising or To Live and Die in L.A.) -- suffered from a double backlash that had little to do with the specifics of the film itself.

First, critics were still gunning for the by-now millionaire celebrity writer, Ezsterhas, desiring to punish him for his egregious success (and his fall from grace, with Showgirls). I'm not sure why this is the case, but many critics love to take down someone "big" who picks a bad project, or who, after previous successes, makes a less-successful film (see: Kevin Costner, Ben Affleck, M. Night Shymalan, and currently...George Lucas.)

Secondly, Jade starred David Caruso, a talent Friedkin once described in an interview (with Charlie Rose) as "the new Steve McQueen." As you may recall, Caruso walked away from a starring role in the highly-successful Steve Bochco TV series NYPD Blue after one (admittedly glorious) season, and critics and audiences interpreted his departure after so brief a spell as one of supreme arrogance and ingratitude. Caruso was also duly punished for his sins: both films he made in 1995, Kiss of Death and Jade, suffered ignoble deaths at the box office. People were angry with Caruso, and his film career evaporated because of it.

Again, none of this historical background is meant to imply or suggest that Jade isn't responsible for its own trespasses; only that - starting out - this critically-derided William Friedkin film had two big strikes against it. Still, Jade might have weathered the twin Eszterhas/Caruso backlash had it been a stronger, better-written film. As it stands, it suffers from a confusing, underwhelming climax, and all the touches we now typically associate with an Eszterhas script.

In other words, Jade feels ugly, leering, and crass. The particular details of the film's narrative are so luridly shocking (a millionaire collects pubic hair trophies of his sexual conquests! The prostitute known as Jade is famous for taking it...uh...the Greek Way!) that we're momentarily distracted from the fact that the characters have little (or no...) depth and that the story is muddled beyond belief.

All of these problems are present and accounted for in Basic Instinct too, by the way, but Verhoeven directed that film with a zealous, even bombastic sense of voyeurism, one bordering on circus-like, and in the lead role Sharon Stone proved herself a game, self-aware ringmaster, a hyper-femme fatale for the ages. Jerry Goldsmith's score evoked Hitchcock, and with her patented Ice Princess act, Stone's character could be traced directly back to Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958). Even if the film wasn't authentically Hitchcockian in technique and meticulous plotting, it felt enough like Hitchcock to pass muster in March of 1992.

But William Friedkin isn't Paul Verhoeven in either style or temperament.

Verhoeven has proven to be at his best as a wicked social satirist, in efforts such as RoboCop (1987) and Starship Troopers (1997). By contrast, Friekdin is a more gloomy, realistic, existentialist director; one who tends to ruminate on heavier matters. To Live and Die in L.A. and The French Connection both draw a profound moral equivalency between obsessive cops and their criminal quarry. Sorcerer obsesses on the fickle whimsy of fate, and The Exorcist deals with the idea that true evil dwells in this world. In Jade, it's clear that Friedkin is examining something else that fascinates him, in this case, sexual jealousy, and the manner in which people either exorcise it, or hide it from society.

The film noir format has always concerned "the underneath," the simmering, ignoble motives that drive a man to desperation; to commit a crime; to fall in love with the wrong woman; or to kill an enemy. Friedkin, in crafting Jade, utilizes the leitmotif of "the mask" to explore that duality of the surface world and the underneath; to plumb the depths of public/private faces.

One of the first shots in the film, for instance, involves a slow, menacing (and beautifully orchestrated) glide up a long, elegant stairway The camera's prey is -- no surprise here -- a dark black mask on display at the top of that staircase. We seem to steadily approach the empty eye slits of the ebony mask, as if the camera wants us to put it on ourselves. Later, evidence found at a crime scene includes a bloodied mask of another kind, a fertility mask. Critic Bob Stephens, writing for The San Francisco Examiner made clever note of the preponderance of masks in Jade:

"CEREMONIAL AND psychological masks dominate William Friedkin's most recent film, "Jade," which is set in San Francisco. In Friedkin's intriguing murder mystery, we encounter the menacing fertility masks of primitive cultures, colorful masks in the celebratory Chinese New Year parade, opaque public personas and the "masks" of identities assumed in hedonistic sexual activities. In "Jade" people are not what they appear to be; with each new revelation of a homicide investigation, the relationships of politicians, legal agencies and three friends change drastically."

Indeed. Jade's story is one in which masks play a crucial role, and which the truth underneath those masks shocks, surprises and confounds. The film's narrative centers around San Francisco's assistant district attorney, David Corelli (David Caruso) as he investigates the stunning and brutal murder of a local philanthropist. The eccentric man died in a compromising position and the one of the few clues as to the identity of the perpetrator involves his collection of pubic hair snippets from sexual conquests. Yes, you read that right.

One such pubic hair snippet apparently belongs to a mysterious high-class prostitute called Jade. Jade's real identity is unknown, but as the case deepens, Corelli draws closer to finding her, and the murderer too. The case leads Corelli to an investigation of California's governor (Richard Crenna), one of Jade's clients. More disturbingly, it leads Corelli straight to his best friends from college -- Matt (Chazz Palminteri) and Trina (Linda Fiorentino) Gavin -- a high-powered married couple living in San Francisco. Matt is a ruthless attorney, and Trina is a clinical psychologist. That very day, Trina happened to visit the murder victim. She offers a plausible explanation for the social call, but her fingerprints are soon found on the murder weapon: a ceremonial hatchet.

David also finds a cuff link at the scene of the crime, and it too is a crucial clue. Meanwhile, the police (led by Michael Biehn) zero in on Trina. Adding to the cloud of guilt surrounding her, she writes successfully (and gives lectures...) about an issue in "the changing workplace." In particular, Trina discusses how it is important to "distinguish between someone who's had a bad day that ends in a temper tantrum and someone whose failure to resist aggressive impulses results in serious destructive acts."

What happens when people are "no longer able to control their urges?"

According to Trina, "they disassociate from their own actions, often experiencing an hysterical blindness." "They're blind," she establishes, " the darkness within themselves."

In most movies of this type, Trina's psycho-babble dialogue would prove a sort of explanation of the killer's motive or mind-set. What separates Jade from the sleazy erotic-thriller pack, and what marks it as a Friedkin film, is that Trina's description covers literally every character in the film.

To wit: Trina leads a double life as Jade -- the hooker every man wants to be with. Her husband Matt...well, if you've seen the movie, you know just how "dark" he is. He's an amoral lawyer and a monstrous, cruel husband, and worse, doesn't even practice foreplay. David himself is pretty dark, threatening the district attorney in order to stay on the Jade case (and gain a political foothold, perhaps, in S.F.).

Michael Biehn's character has secrets too...his public face hides a dark, private one.. As for the governor, he has orchestrated a massive conspiracy to cover his sexual dalliance, all the while maintaining a smile and a laconic demeanor. The "masks" people wear in public, we see, are the masks that allow them to - in Trina's vernacular -"disassociate" themselves from their urges, their moral failings, their monstrous deeds.

As in the best examples of the film noir genre, in Jade it's not merely a few bad apples who are is the world itself that is twisted and perverse. And that tenet certainly fits in with the gritty nihilism we've detected in Friedkin's other cinematic works. There's a great shot in the film, early on, that seems to express visually this conceit. At a ritzy San Francisco party, an empty tuxedo jacket hovers near the ceiling, over the revellers, social climbers and wannabes - the "haves and the have mores." As the shot suggests, they're all sort of empty suits, devoid of morality and social purpose beyond hedonism and self-aggrandizement. On the soundtrack, "Isn't it Romantic?" plays ironically.

So, is Jade misogynist or feminist? Well, the film concerns a woman subjugated and enslaved by her callous, two-timing husband, who - while donning her mask of disassociation -- steps out on her marriage to experience sexual pleasures with other men. This act may make Jade/Trina immoral, but it certainly doesn't make her a monster.

Again, this is made clear through Friedkin's savvy staging of a scene involving Matt and Trina making love. Matt mounts Trina without any foreplay whatsoever, and selfishly - and painfully - has very brief sex with her (I was going to write "makes love to her" but that was clearly the wrong phrase). For the duration of this act, Friedkin's camera remains on Trina's face; in relatively tight shot. A tear falls down her cheek. We detect on Trina's face a flurry of conflicting emotions. There's physical pain; there's emotional hurt; and then the mask returns. The staging -- close on Trina -- makes us feel the pain too and helps us understand that although she may make questionable moral decisions, she's hardly the film's villain. I don't believe the film is misogynist because "Jade" (unlike Catherine Trammell) is not a loopy psycho-killer. Her worst transgression is the search for sexual satisfaction outside of marriage. True, she takes that quest a bit far...but it is mostly the men in Jade who are the monsters.

I would also argue that the film isn't exactly feminist. Jade -- like all the other characters in the film -- dons the public "mask" of propriety while shedding it in private. Just because she's a woman, she's not automatically better than the men. The movie doesn't exactly approve of her of what she's done. In fact, Jade doesn't exactly approve of herself or what she's done. There's one mask in the film even she is ashamed to wear: that of a stocking pulled tight over her face, while a sexual partner screws her from behind. This moment occurs during a sleazy hotel room tryst, and the stocking makes Jade's face look deformed, distorted...even piggish. This is where Jade draws the line; where her ability to "disassociate" fails, and even she feels exploited.

Jade is a thoroughly fascinating film, but ultimately a somewhat unsatisfying and opaque one. Friedkin wants to examine the characters and ideas here with some depth, but the script rarely affords him the opportunity to go beyond the superficial, except in his choice of images. And the final revelatory scene raises more questions than it answers. For instance, if the killer of the philanthropist is whom the script tells us he is, then why the ritualistic nature of that murder? Why would the culprit -- as fingered by the screenplay -- arrange the body in such a fashion? It makes no sense in terms of motivation, in terms of narrative, and in terms of character. It's in that moment you realize how poorly-constructed the film's screenplay is; despite the interesting themes that occasionally make it tantalizing or alluring.

"The frustrating thing about Jade," wrote critic Carlo Cavagna, "is that it proves Friedkin still has it."

Cavagna goes on to explain: "The drawn-out opening sequence, a build-up to a murder during which the camera drifts through an opulent mansion filled with valuable artwork, including several eerie masks, is masterful. The signature of the artist who made The Exorcist is unmistakable. Moreover, the protracted car chase an hour into the film is nearly the equal of Friedkin's exceptional car chases in The French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A., and recalls similarly stomach-lurching work by John Frankenheimer in The French Connection II and Ronin. The secret seems to lie in not overdoing the action and instead allowing the intensity of the actors to play into the scene, while at the same time putting a camera in the car to show the fracas from the driver's perspective."

There are some good points made there and I agree with them to a large extent. Jade occasionally struts with a sense of anticipatory dread and foreboding that is hard to dismiss. And Linda Fiorentino -- star of a fantastic film noir called The Last Seduction (1994) -- is beguiling in the film. Nonetheless, I prefer Friedkin in a more "gritty" and realistic mode (The French Connection or Sorcerer). The expressionistic editing with jolts and subliminal flashes -- a new style when Jade vetted it in 1995 -- has, alas, become boring de rigueur these days and just adds to the triteness of the story.

I also enjoy the Chinatown chase scene -- or what Friedkin calls an "anti-chase" scene since it involves cars stopped by traffic for long intervals -- but as skillful as it is from a purely technical perspective, this sequence doesn't cover any new ground for this artist. Before Jade, we already knew that Friedkin could stage, direct and edit a brilliant car chase. The impression here is that the director is searching -- desperately searching -- for some way to make the risible screenplay more engaging and punchy.

That Friedkin succeeds in that difficult quest with both his "masks" motif and his adrenaline-inducing car chase is a testament to his talent. At the very least, this film is intriguing. Jade may still be a mediocre film, but it's worth at least one viewing if you enjoy film noir, not to mention the spectacle of a great director working around a script to make his points with crafty visuals.


  1. Loved 'The Last Seduction', one of the best and most overlooked films of the 1990's.
    Friedkin's 'Jade' makes up for his atrocious 'The Guardian' and the demonic tree. I had to laugh as I wrote that. This film was anything but boring, I thought the direction was tight, but noone, and I mean not one character was likable in this film. And Palmenterri was a true monster.

  2. I love this film. Sure, the script has some problems, but they're totally overcome by the direction, cinematography and cast, especially in the far superior director's cut which runs twelve minutes longer and has a MUCH MUCH MUCH more satisfying ending. The theatrical cut was butchered.