Jonathan Rosenbaum has written intelligently often enough that his gaffes and errors just amaze me. In this last month two different films have played in Chicago which have scenes in which Rosenbaum thinks characters are hallucinating.

In Irma Vep Hong Kong movie star Maggie Cheung plays a Hong Kong actress named Maggie Cheung, who travels to Paris to perform a movie role as a cat burglar and jewel thief. Late in the film Cheung, wearing the cat-burglar costume, prowls her hotel, sneaks into a fellow guest’s room, steals some jewelry, and later discards it. Rosenbaum states this scene may be a hallucination [“Life Intimidates Art,” June 13, 1997], even though Cheung’s character took no drugs, shows no signs of mental illness, and the scene is crosscut with objective third-person point-of-view shots of the drunken, weeping occupant of the room speaking on the phone.

In The Big Red One, Mark Hamill’s American infantryman kills a Nazi soldier holed up in a crematorium. Rosenbaum states that he is surprised that Richard Schickel takes this scene literally [“The Most Intelligent American Movie of the Year,” November 19]. Rosenbaum must have napped through parts of it or was covering his eyes. During the American assault on a concentration camp Hamill fires at a fleeing Nazi and misses. The German is carrying a machine pistol. Hamill pursues the man and searches the nearest building, which is shown to be a crematorium. An objective shot shows a hand pulling an oven door closed from the inside. Hamill hears the sound, follows, and starts opening oven doors, discovering human remains inside. He opens a door to find the Nazi holed up inside, aiming a machine pistol at him. The Nazi pulls the trigger but fails to fire. He ejects a dud cartridge and continues to try to fire. From the point of view of inside the oven, Hamill shoots the Nazi. He then continues to shoot the Nazi repeatedly, slowly and deliberately (and from my count, reloading at least once). This shooting draws his sergeant (Lee Marvin) who looks into the oven and says, “I think you got him.” Hamill’s character reloads and shoots a few more times before breaking down.

Neither movie visually portrays any character’s internal mental processes. No character in either film, outside these two alleged instances, is subjectively shown dreaming, flashbacking, fantasizing, or hallucinating. Indeed, there is barely a subjective point-of-view shot in either film. I don’t know why Rosenbaum thinks these characters are hallucinating, unless he doesn’t want Maggie Cheung to overidentify with her role and doesn’t want Mark Hamill to commit overkill and waste of government resources. I think it is Rosenbaum, not these characters, who is hallucinating, and perhaps the Reader could assign him an escort with whom he could reality check, or hallucination check as the case may require.

L.D. Chukman


Jonathan Rosenbaum replies:

L.D. Chukman appears to have faith that film grammar always means the same thing–faith that objectivity and subjectivity are coded identically in every film. It’s not a faith I share. Aside from the fact that “objective third-person point-of-view shots” is an oxymoron, I don’t think one can be so confident when it comes to films as unconventional as Irma Vep and The Big Red One. I’m willing to concede that I may have overvalued my impression that the briefly glimpsed German was firing from a foxhole inside the crematorium, but Fuller focuses only on Hamill’s crazed expression while he keeps firing, which creates some ambiguity about who or what he’s firing at. Marvin’s sarcastic remark, “I think you got him,” doesn’t make it any clearer.

I never used the word “hallucination” when I reviewed Irma Vep. I merely said the sequence of the theft “may or may not be a dream,” which the following sequence–Cheung in the same costume being woken from a heavy sleep in her hotel room–seems to suggest. After all, the theft is completely out of character for Cheung as we see her in the remainder of the film; it makes sense only for the fictional cat burglar she’s playing. It’s worth adding that when I discussed this sequence with Olivier Assayas, the writer-director, he accepted my interpretation as legitimate, if not the only possible reading.