’90s Time Stamp
By Paul Felten
The once-fashionable Mike Figgis, and specifically his unsung One Night Stand, played a vital, fondly remembered role in this writer’s budding cinephilia.
Let me be bold from the get-go and just say that Mike Figgis’s 1997 sort-of-melodrama One Night Stand has the one of the best mugging scenes ever committed to film. The movie’s central hetero couple (who are by no means the movie’s central couple) are walking through a Manhattan parking lot at night. Played by Wesley Snipes and Nastassja Kinski, they are both very beautiful and married to other people and do not yet know they are going to sleep together; they need some extra prodding. And so, from out of the shadows struts a louche, laughing Eurotrash couple in gaudy colored scarves, waving unlit cigarettes and tottering like casualties from a bad art party that nevertheless had plenty of coke to go around. The man leans in to ask for a light as the woman brandishes a knife, and suddenly Snipes and Kinski are at the mercy of these two weirdos, who get genuinely, intimately dangerous (in slow motion!) before Snipes fights them off and the traumatized pair finally make it back to the hotel to commit the adultery promised by the film’s title. It’s as if performance artist Ann Liv Young and some random friend of hers wandered into a movie released by the same studio that put out Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Don’t you dare tell me not to be sentimental about the ’90s.
People my age are especially nostalgic for that decade right now because of too many superhero movies or whatever, but for some reason Mike Figgis doesn’t seem to be included in our current collective panegyric to this particular “moment” in cinema. Who watches Leaving Las Vegas anymore? Or, for that matter, Timecode, which a critic friend of mine recently told me was a key early digital film that he has never managed to get all the way through (he teaches digital film). Jesus, remember The Loss of Sexual Innocence? Figgis isn’t forgotten, exactly, but there’s something about his particular concerns—both formally and thematically—that feels understandably passé; the wall-to-wall smoothish-jazz scores he composed for most of his movies don’t help, nor does the stubborn thread, running through all of them, that foregrounds and valorizes the tortured, misunderstood art-man. These movies were once considered very cool in some quarters, and on rewatch can seem very labored in their efforts to be cool. But damn, did I think they were cool when I was a kid, and One Night Stand—which, upon its release, got terrible reviews and didn’t make any money even though I recommended it to all my friends—might hold up better than any of them.
Based on a treatment sold by Joe Eszterhas during the height of his scuzzy erotic-thriller run, One Night Stand is very much not a Joe Eszterhas movie, in that it is pretty relaxed and not all of its characters are psychotic, though its constellation of complicated desire runs parallel to some of the high-pitched hard-R stuff that was also being released at the time. The plot concerns a successful director of commercials named Max (played by Snipes) who comes to New York one weekend to do some business and see an old friend named Charlie, who’s just been diagnosed with HIV. Charlie is played by Robert Downey Jr. at the height of his puckish, fuck-it-all phase, pre–prison and Iron Man; it is their relationship that is the film’s central one, a relationship that clearly included a physical component before Max left the New York theater world to sell out in L.A. But the One Night Stand proper—the one that we see—is with Kinski’s Karen, an art dealer who picks up Max by saying “You have a black heart” to him when she notices that his pen has leaked through his shirt. Max’s plane gets delayed, they go to a concert and get assaulted, and then they tentatively consummate their attraction in an unsweaty love scene that is (or was at the time) surprising in its tenderness.
And then… nothing much happens for a while. Max goes back home, has some tension with his rather broadly drawn L.A. wife (played by Ming-Na Wen), and stews in the juices of his commercial compromise, until he’s finally summoned back to New York (following the inevitable “One Year Later” title card) to keep vigil at Charlie’s deathbed. It is here that he felicitously reconnects with Karen, who turns out to be Charlie’s sister-in-law. But the rekindling of their romance is an afterthought, or a subplot, to watching Charlie die. Not just watching, no: being with Charlie as he dies—talking with him as he’s given a sponge bath, smoking weed with his friends and his doctor as they gather at his hospital bed in a round-the-clock party/deathwatch. And, ultimately, sharing the most intimate conversation between any two people in the whole film, during which Max finally breaks down in tears and Charlie gasps for breath in between jokes and exhortations to him to get off of his ass and live.
Corny, right? By today’s (or maybe any) standards, there’s a small but real host of problematic things about this movie, starting with what could be perceived as Charlie’s status as an AIDS-stricken Magical Homosexual whose character is sacrificed in order for some straight people to go become more interesting and honest with themselves. In a decade that saw films such as Go Fish, The Watermelon Woman, and Swoon reach art-house audiences across the land (not to mention lighter fare such as Jeffrey and Love! Valour! Compassion!), One Night Stand was resolutely for an audience of straight, self-styled sophisticates. No wonder I loved it when I was 20. But it is also a quietly brutal critique of the ’90s-era culture-industry lifestyle, one that anticipates a world we still live in, rife with art-school “creatives” making branded content. Again, no wonder I loved it when I was 20. I could not wait to have these problems, these friends—to experience the intricate sadnesses this film depicts vis-à-vis mature romantic love and artistic integrity. Now, some days, I am sad because no one has ever asked me to direct a commercial.
Mike Figgis has directed lots of different kinds of movies, including some studio hackwork, but at their best and most personal, his films are downright multidisciplinary: keenly curious about artists outside the medium that is his primary one, and willing to spend time with these artists in ways that temporarily, and pleasurably, hijack the story he’s supposed to be telling. His 1988 breakthrough, Stormy Monday, is a mellow crime thriller involving a British club owner being hassled by American gangsters, but the most memorable thing about the film is the Polish free-jazz band who get lots of screen time and whose scrappy performance onstage is essentially the climax of the movie; they are the only free people here, crucial and vibrant accessories to an otherwise cramped and fractious context. Romanticization, sure, but also rupture. One Night Stand is about a filmmaker who has betrayed this kind of curiosity in order to become rich, and whose wealth, status, and masculinity performance have taken him so far from his former artistic and sexual fluidities that “liberation” can only come in the form of a softhearted infidelity in a well-appointed hotel room after he is robbed by performance artists. No wonder Charlie can’t stop laughing at him.
It’s important to talk about Wesley Snipes now, because his performance in One Night Stand—wedged between his work in Murder at 1600 and U.S. Marshals—is as embodied and exciting as anything he did in, say, Jungle Fever or White Men Can’t Jump, though far more quietly so. He plays Max as a sensitive soul from the start, but a sensitive soul with swagger—one of those cool guys who have a really nice house but are down for everything and like weird music and still go to see dance: the type of dude who thinks they did everything when they were young in New York and so have nothing more to learn. And then, when his world starts to go sideways, he doesn’t crumble; he becomes enraged, subtly. His body tightens, his eyes go a little dead, and he gets super-haughty, palpably uncomfortable in his skin without ever asking for sympathy—that is, until he’s back with Charlie, the only person he can relax around (and at this point Charlie can’t even sit up on his own). The brilliant, moment-to-moment specificity of the work that Snipes does in this movie is reason enough to watch it. Seeing it again a couple of weeks ago made me nostalgic for a time when an eccentric, flawed, space-giving thing like this could get Wesley Snipes to be in it. But nostalgia doesn’t do anybody any good. •
Paul Felten is the writer and co-director of the recently released Slow Machine.