Messes of the Afternoon
By Emily Condon

Dir. Anthony Hopkins, U.S., Strand

It’s infinitely arguable whether experimental filmmaking, on the whole, can also function as entertainment; in the end it comes down to matters of taste. But when a true avant-garde auteur plies and plays with the boundaries of the medium, discovering and exposing what’s possible, the results, whether or not they can be characterized as enjoyable, are often downright—dare we say it—important. Like him or hate him, David Lynch crafted a unique cinematic language, bringing avant-garde tendencies into narrative. To borrow a phrase from the business world, he’s a capacity builder, and Lynchian images like Dean Stockwell’s gaudy make-up, the quivering knuckles of Laura Dern, and Robert Blake’s haunting visage are cemented in our collective memory. Looking to the far from conventional Slipstream, it appears that writer/director/star/composer Sir Anthony Hopkins lacks that avant-garde gift. I suspect most viewers will find that the only enduring outcome of Hopkins’s admittedly bold but nonsensical film is an acute headache.

Hopkins exhibited strange tendencies long before he unleashed the inexplicable hodgepodge of sound, image, cuts, and self-indulgence that comprises Slipstream. Heralded for performances ranging from the profoundly subtle (his butler Stevens, in James Ivory’s The Remains of the Day, remains among the most heart-wrenching characters in not-so-recent memory) to the peculiarly creepy (his star-making, Oscar-winning work in The Silence of the Lambs), he nevertheless regularly appears in supreme stinkers (The Road to Wellville, Instinct, Hannibal, Bad Company, et al.) and too often proves willing to play the doddering fool (Legends of the Fall, Bobby, etc.). Achieving a status as iconic as that of Hopkins is a blessing and a curse—the capital-A actor enjoys a level of freedom that the workday actor wouldn’t dream of, but along with that freedom comes an attendant responsibility. Hopkins’s (or perhaps his agents’) lack of discretion has resulted in his veering ever nearer to the butt-end of a pop culture joke. He still offers sufficient strong and convincing performances to maintain a veneer of respectable dignity, but if Slipstream indicates how he intends to spend his cultural capital, he (and we) might be in trouble.

The film opens with a disorienting muddle of jump cuts, blips, zooms, and dissolves, intercut with a virtual highlight reel of history’s worst moments (Hitler! The Atom Bomb!). A wash of black settles over the screen, onto which sputters the word “Slipstream.” An apparition flickers under the title, a kind of visual whisper that morphs into the word “dream.” After this briefest of respites (the only one in the film as I recall), the exasperating barrage of cuts and jumbles returns, and it doesn’t let up for the next 96 minutes.

The content of the film—the words narrative or plot don’t quite capture it—revolves around Felix Bonhoeffer (Hopkins), an aging screenwriter who appears to be losing his grip on reality, or having a dream, or something. The first act (as much as there are acts) finds Felix lunching with his perky friend Tracy (a grating Lisa Pepper). She discusses the concept of a “slipstream,” a vortex in which time, space, dreams, and reality merge and divide into myriad bewildering experiences. As she talks, the images mingle and break and the sound splutters, repeating, echoing, repeating, falling off. Launching into an unrelenting, rat-a-tat pace, the image splits, stops, tilts, cuts to black-and-white, cuts between faces, slows, speeds up…well, you get the idea.

On the way home, Felix and a now sleeping Tracy get caught in a traffic jam. A disgruntled wild man appears, brandishing a handgun and bellowing at Felix: “You’re losing the plot!” and it seems that something meta this way comes. Except it doesn’t.

Slipstream flirts with a number of genres—the salient Hollywood commentary, the film-within-a-film, the dreamscape, the nightmarish psychological thriller. But thanks to its dogmatic devotion to a too-singular aesthetic and deficiency of substance the film quickly devolves into a lackluster cluster of not too original tricks (why is it that dreams in the movies so often resemble those from other movies but so rarely resemble actual dreams?)

Mistakes and miscalls plague every aspect of the film. John Turturro’s portrayal of movie producer “Harvey” (think of certain other Harvey, if he was 150 pounds lighter and 60 times more irritating) dribbles into painful histrionics; the one good performance in the film (by S. Epatha Merkerson) languishes for lack of purpose. Hopkins can’t quite resist masturbatory touches, whether they be in the form of self-referential cracks, ironic digs at the egos of actors, or pairing himself with two unimpressive women who are considerably younger and more attractive than he (including his wife, Stella Arroyave, who also produced). Mindfucks may abound—before the glorious arrival of the closing credits, we encounter doppelgangers, shape-shifters, specters of Invasion of the Body Snatchers hero Kevin McCarthy, a sports car that changes color, characters that change names, actors who change identities, dead men that are living, nonlinear editing, Christian Slater, computers as prisons, cell-phones to nowhere, and on and on—but neither obfuscation nor star power mask the simple fact that there’s no there there.

One has to respect Hopkins, to a degree, for employing his wattage and his wealth in order to propagate his idiosyncratic nonsense into the zeitgeist. Even though it’s a train wreck, Slipstream is a gutsy move for a man who could follow in the footsteps of so many of his peers and whittle away his remaining days cashing easy paychecks. His instincts are right. Sadly, his experiment isn’t.