Thursday, January 19, 2006

Picked Flick #67: Mask

Mask makes me cry, extravagantly, every time I watch it. If you've ever seen a photograph of Iguazu Falls or beheld a tropical monsoon, you have some idea what my face looks like by the end of Mask, and the funny thing about this is that I always expect that this time, the movie won't work, that I won't be so affected. I first saw Mask in 1986, when it debuted on HBO, and perhaps the fact that I so associate the movie with my being young and first discovering my attraction to the movies is the reason why I always underestimate it, why I always expect its power to diminish over time. Plenty of films became personal touchstones and guilty pleasures in the intervening years, but whereas Steel Magnolias and Dances with Wolves and Ghost feel so antique to me now—enjoyable, but emblematic mostly of their time and place in my life—Mask doesn't subside.

Nothing about Mask is ostentatious, which is particularly remarkable given that it draws on so many tropes that typically embroil Hollywood productions in a tar-pit of tonal trouble: a socially ostracized protagonist, a lower-working-class milieu, a female lead who is "brassy" and "no-nonsense," explorations of teen romance and adult alcoholism, necessarily conspicuous prosthetic make-up, and a foretold trajectory into early death. Somehow, despite the boneyard of palpably phony movies that ventured into these same territories—several of them major Oscar winners—Mask feels true and naturalistic, give or take the bathetic accents of a mute acquaintance who achieves language at a climactic moment. Eric Stoltz and Cher, as the cranially disfigured Rocky Dennis and the mother who both champions him and cuts him zero slack, are such confident and open performers that they forbid the film from drifting into histrionics. Their house is believable. Their quarrels are believable. One of Mask's quiet but marvelous scenes follows Stoltz's Rocky as he follows his mom around the house, reciting to her a poem he has written in school, and for which he has been praised. It sure doesn't hurt that the poem, written by the real Rocky Dennis, is, like much of the movie, a marvelously minimalist piece of work—unforgettable, I suspect, to anyone who's seen the movie. What's most memorable about the scene, though, is how Cher seems so casually indifferent to the poem and to her son, and how Stoltz keeps reciting as though her evident preoccupation doesn't bother him. A simple scenario, played out in daily lives all the time, but seldom realized on-screen, particularly given the usual Hollywood stranglehold that characters must at all times be either 100% appealing or, temporarily, 100% unappealing, at which point the film's job is to strenuously redeem them. Here, too, Mask is modestly exceptional: when Rusty and Rocky fight, their reconciliations are not perfect; Cher's embodiment of brave, protective motherhood stays in the same general temperature range as her scenes of negligent and cruel motherhood; and as the film progresses and martyrdom approaches, Rocky actually becomes less easily "likable," his disappointments and frustrations souring his personality in a wholly plausible way.

Laszlo Kovacs' widescreen photography ensures that Mask never feels less than cinematic, but its intimacy and recognizability as an almost mundane human story, limned and cruelly truncated by one extraordinary obstacle, make it feel like something happening in your own neighbor's house, or in your own. Rocky Dennis' cranial deformity is never incidental to Mask, but rather than treating his condition as a relentless and limiting point of focus, the filmmakers commit to characterizing his life with an empathy and humility that wondrously embrace everything else in the movie, too. And what a terrific final tribute to Rocky: to have his life depicted in such a way that his clever, moody, compassionate ordinariness, and not his otherness, is the essence of his story. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Blogger qta said...

First, allow me to say that I, too, love this movie. It gets me every time as well. Second, Cher was Robbed.

7:39 AM, January 19, 2006  

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