News flash: "Judge Joe Armenio" is yet another pseudonym for Laura Albert. The greatest hoax of our generation continues.
"Behind the greatest hoax of our time is the heartbreaking story that
started it all."
I really wanted to like this film, given that it was lambasted by most critics for reasons that seemed illegitimate to me, and I like a good film maudit as much as the next contrarian. Criticism tended to focus on the film's relentless unpleasantness (what's wrong with that?), the lack of realism in its portrayal of the American South (are Faulkner and O'Connor realistic?), and the fact that the true story on which it was based turned out to be spectacularly untrue (irrelevant). Turns out I didn't like the film, for reasons related to but not identical with Criticism Number Two. The Heart is Deceitful left a bad taste in my mouth because not only does auteur Asia Argento (daughter of Italian director Dario Argento, actress, screenwriter, and director of 2001's Scarlet Diva) not have much of a feel for the culture she's depicting, she never makes any attempt to understand it. She's simply mining it, wallowing in its grubbiness and engaging in an act of aesthetic tourism. I usually don't criticize artists for being self-indulgent (who else are they supposed to indulge?), but this is a narrow, blinkered, self-indulgent work .
Facts of the Case
The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things is based on two autobiographical story collections by one J.T. LeRoy, a teenager from West Virginia who first published in 1996. With his stories of heartland horror and his wounded, blank, androgynous Warholish manner, LeRoy became a sort of mascot for a certain class of Hollywood hipster which included Argento, Winona Ryder, Debbie Harry, Shirley Manson, and so on. Argento's film adaptation premiered at Cannes in 2004 and in early 2006 The New York Times revealed that LeRoy was the creation of San Francisco writer Laura Albert, and that the character of LeRoy had been played in public appearances by a young woman named Savannah Knoop.
Argento's episodic narrative takes material from both story collections, focusing on the relationship between young Jeremiah (played at age seven by Jimmy Bennett, then at age ten by twins Cole and Dylan Sprouse) and his drug-addled mother Sarah (Argento).
Of course the fact that J.T. LeRoy does not exist does not make the film based on his stories any less legitimate; this creative work exists independent of any such authorial shenanigans. Still, it's hard for the terminally unhip among us not to feel a bit of schadenfreuede at the gullibility of these sullen, world-weary Hollywood cool kids, and I don't think it's unfair to say that Albert's ruse succeeded for the same reasons that the movie fails. Argento and company are all too willing to smugly swallow any story that confirms their knee-jerk cynicism and fashionable "darkness." I don't mean to suggest that Argento plays Sarah as a monster (although she is partly that) or that her goal is to mock her characters. In fact one of the film's virtues is the way that it walks the tonal tightrope, never quite falling entirely into absurdist horror or lyrical sadness but maintaining a balance between the two. In the end, Argento's compassion is turned inward, not outward: the characters exist not as people in a particular time and place but as reflections of her own troubled self. I haven't seen Scarlet Diva, in which Argento plays a character very like herself, but I think I'd be better able to handle her narcissism in such a context (the lacerating self-obsession of Vincent Gallo's films, which I find very moving, comes to mind as a comparison).
The film begins with young Jeremiah wrenched from his loving foster parents to live with Sarah, a bleached-blonde, drawling, red-lipsticked disaster who dismally attempts to woo him by waggling toys in front of his face and serving him cold Spaghetti-O's on a paper plate. Soon she takes her son out on the road, giving him speed to keep him awake on a long road trip and shacking up with a series of increasingly monstrous boyfriends. The central tension, one that Argento handles well, is that Sarah is horribly negligent and incredibly, touchingly needy in a childlike way (she's seen sucking her thumb at one point). At one point, heartbroken at being abandoned by yet another guy, she encourages Jeremiah to "be my sister" and in one episode the idea of Sarah and Jeremiah as twins is explored with a startling gender-bending realism. All the while Jeremiah looks on, endlessly impressionable, with a wide-eyed wounded expression, wanting nothing except his mother's love. Interesting ideas, all of these, but the film suffers from Argento's refusal to create a convincing world in which to explore them. The viewer spends too much time playing spot-the-hipster with the cast (look, it's Marilyn Manson!) or wondering how Argento will negotiate her Southern accent (a game attempt) for anything to register beyond an abstract level.
The Heart of Deceitful is full of sexual and violent material, most of which is alluded to and left to the imagination. This restraint, I think, is an admirable thing, but I also wonder why the film shrinks away from visual ugliness; it looks positively glossy at times. This may be the result of a conflict between Argento and cinematographer Eric Edwards (Argento mentions in passing in her commentary that she thinks the film is "too pretty" and I think she's right). Argento's style is also irritatingly conventional in a generically "edgy" way: she uses jittery hand-held cameras, pointlessly odd camera angles, slow motion meant to suggest intense drama, blurriness to suggest disorientation, and so on. The overall effect seems curiously half-hearted and divided against itself; it's neither poetic and lyrical nor hard-hitting and grimily realistic.
Palm Pictures presents the film in an anamorphic transfer and 5.1 Surround, with a nice collection of extras for those interested in both film and hoax (although I don't really buy the "greatest hoax of our time" stuff; admittedly my circle is pretty small but I don't know anyone who cares about it). The accompanying booklet features photos by Mick Rock, mostly of "J.T. LeRoy" and his friends partying and posing in various settings, with a collection of quotations about the ruse. In her commentary track, Argento avoids discussion of LeRoy's nonexistence, which is fine with me; she focuses on behind-the-scenes details, descriptions of camera setups, and relationships with actors, especially the boys who played Jeremiah. She also talks a bit about her own acting, especially the ways in which she was motivated by her own feelings for her daughter. Producer Chris Hanley is also present, but doesn't say much; when he does, he uses an irritating lazy drawl which suggests he's either intimidated by Argento or would rather be elsewhere.
The film's New York premiere was after the hoax was revealed, so the 14 minutes of home-movie footage included here feature Argento, Mick Rock, producer Lilly Bright, and others discussing the issue; Argento delivers some tired "what is truth?" bromides, Bright is thoughtful, and Mick Rock, substance-addled or seeming so, rambles on animatedly. "JT Under Cover" is a half-hour of home movie footage shot by Chris Hanley of Knoop/LeRoy in various public settings, among them film festival screenings, parties, and, most notably, a monumentally awkward public reading at a London bookstore.
I hate to join the chorus of detractors and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things doesn't deserve to be ignored because of its origins, but ultimately it's an awkwardly executed and narrow-minded film.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Palm Pictures
• "Exposing a Hoax: Exclusives, Rarities, and Fabrications: A Collection of Photographs by Mick Rock"
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