Stars and Bars



Written by Dorothy Tristan and John Hancock

Directed by John Hancock

At the USA Charles

NORMAN Mailer put a new twist on the ex-con-as-artist theme a while back when he got felon and author Jack Henry Abbott released from prison and back on the streets, where he killed again. Although director John Hancock is a little less daring in his treatment of the theme, his Weeds is one weird melange of a movie.

Weeds starts out as stark prison drama. San Quentin inmate Lee Umstetter (Nick Nolte), fed up with the inhumanity of prison where wardens say things like "We don't have rehabilitation anymore, we have punishment," tries to kill himself. Failing that, he turns into the convict with a conscience, the old TV-movie standby. "Give me a thick book," he tells the prison librarian, "I don't care what it's about."

War and Peace changes his life--and shifts the movie into a mixed mode of comedy, musical and social satire. Inspired by his heavy readings--Nietzsche, Camus, and the like--Umstetter pens a prison drama called "Weeds" and directs it in San Quentin. Weeds, the movie, is the tale of Umstetter's exploits once he's been paroled through a campaign initiated by an impressed San Francisco drama critic. Umstetter and his fellow ex-convict thespians take their show on the road.

As it turns out, Weeds meanders as much as the motley group, and Hancock intersperses comedy with melodrama in such a casual manner that we are left looking for the method in his madness.

THE CHARACTERS of Weeds add to the general schizophrenia. Lee's benefactor and later his lover, Lillian, is presumably a serious proponent of Lee's talent. The first time we see her, however, the main focus is her exposed cleavage which jiggles while she applauds. When Lillian discovers that Umstetter has lifted his masterpiece from Jean Genet's Deathwatch, she couldn't care less. After all, she's the food and drama critic. The screenwriters make her a middle-aged Barbie Doll, and raise the role above its flimsiness.

Nolte, on the other hand, is perfectly suited to his role. As in Down and Out in Beverly Hills and 48 Hours, he brings a tongue-in-cheek toughness to his part. This role, with its curious contradictions--armed robber, loyal buddy, plagiarizer, and playwright--is well-suited to Nolte's self-irony.

Fortunately, there's also a series of unusual supporting performances. John Tobles-Bey as Umstetter's sidekick Navarro is lively and especially effective in the comedy sequences. He's a vigorous, charming con man. Ernie Hudson, as tough-guy Bagdad, sings "The Impossible Dream" in a scene which absolutely mesmerizes. It's a spooky, lucid moment in a movie that is often confused.

The most eccentric performance is turned in by Anne Ramsey as Umstetter's mother. She's a parody of the faithful, loving Hollywood mother and she looks like the result of a genetic experiment in which Mama Leone's genes were spliced with a munchkin's.

More problematic is Hancock's heavy-handed political rhetoric. There's a highly emotional scene in the play-within-a-movie where the ex-cons decry the fact that they are "victims of a capitalist society" and ask "Where are the big criminals?" But these are the same men who sing "I got things up my ass, I got things up my nose." It's funny, but it subverts the movie's well-touted "message".

What Weeds does with its grabbag of serious and silly, comedy and melodrama is defy convention. This confusion is deliberate and although the movie's attempt to be provocative often borders on the offensive, destroying formulas is a worthwhile endeavor. When the play finally gets to Off-Broadway, the fictional New York Times reviewer says "It's a strange, wild piece." It sure is.

In a recent interview, director John Hancock '61 and actor John Toles-Bey spoke about Weeds, their latest film. Soft-spoken Hancock chose his words carefully. Toles-Bey betrayed his background as a Venice Beach street performer with a quick and easy wit. Hancock was forthcoming on the subject of Weeds' portrayals of prisoners, women and Blacks, which some critics say enforce widely held stereotypes.

On Making the Picture:

It was a difficult picture to get on because it doesn't fit a genre...That's what I like about it. I've always been attracted to material that was hard to categorize. I think that's what makes it interesting. You don't know how to take life--whether it's funny or terrible...

On Stereotyping:

My wife and I write together. We actually have the same view of the question of stereotypes which is that the primary function--now, we may be wrong in this and stereotypes may do a great deal of harm--but that the primary function as a writer, as an artist, is to hold the mirror up to nature and to depict women and Black people as you perceive them, not how they should be.

Depicting people how they should be is a form of Stalinism and leads to bad art and bad sociology and is not believable to people. Her [his wife's] view of how women are--although I do dishes and she's very militant--is kinda like that. They do tend to behave like she [referring to the character of Lillian] does regardless of their aspirations.

On lead Nick Nolte:

Nick is one of the nicest guys in the world. Even when he used to take dope and drink I've heard he was terribly nice, and he certainly is now.

Toles-Bey concurs: He is a beautiful person. I mean, he is great. To be in the position he's in...he could easily be a dickhead, but he's not.

On the Film's Politics:

This is about the randomness of fate...All our aspirations are subject to weather and how do you keep your optimism and behave in a positive way...A lot of research went into this and I felt that a Marxist analysis of the origins of crime was old hat and wrong. But the more I knew about it, the more I saw it was the case. You have to be uniquely disadvantaged in representation in court and social background to do much time.

On Crime and Punishment:

My wife believes very strongly in capital punishment. She's willing to cut hands off to punish thieving...She's quite bloody minded.