PRINT April 1995


David Salle's Search and Destroy

I APPROACHED DAVID SALLE’S first movie with an open mind, if not exactly an open heart. Bashing Salle, after all, whether for his paintings or his public persona, has become a rather routine gesture; there’s not much pleasure left in it. (Eileen Daspin had perhaps the last gasp of dramatically wicked fun at Salle’s expense eighteen months ago in the fashion and society magazine W’s excoriating profile of the artist, which quoted yours truly.) It seemed a better idea to see Search and Destroy in a frame of mind in which I might actually enjoy the film. Getting a movie made is famously hard, and Salle has managed it. What’s more, despite a modest budget, he has assembled a star-studded cast, including Griffin Dunne, Dennis Hopper, Rosanna Arquette, Ethan Hawke, John Turturro, and Christopher Walken. No less an eminence than Martin Scorsese played executive producer. These bankable names arouse the expectation that Search and Destroy might be more than a vanity project.

Salle’s premise, it must be explained, contains a grain of autoreferentiality: it concerns a man desperate to make a movie, and so to fulfill his “vision.” The film opens with small-time entertainment promoter Martin Mirkheim (Griffin Dunne)—the name itself seems to hiss “loser”—sitting with his beleaguered wife (Rosanna Arquette) in the office of a government bureaucrat who has just informed him he owes the state of Florida $147,956 in taxes. Martin, however, has his eyes on something grander than his debts: he dreams of filming Daniel Strong, an inspirational (and frankly ludicrous) novel by a cable-TV self-help guru, Dr. Luthor Waxling, played by madman-thespian-par-excellence Hopper. Martin soon hooks up with Marie (Illeana Douglas), Waxling’s receptionist and girlfriend, who has her own cinematic aspirations: having taken a screenwriting course, she has penned a sci-fi, Alien-type gorefest. To raise the necessary cash, the two set out for New York, where they look up Kim Ulander, a mysterious “businessman” Mirkheim has bonded with in the film’s opening scenes over their shared enthusiasm for Waxling’s crackpot philosophy. (The part is played by Walken; as in the case of Hopper, Salle has made terribly original casting decisions for the parts of the crazies.) The film thereafter follows a conventional downward spiral into violence, mayhem, and the inevitable homicides.

A subterranean theme of Search and Destroy is an ambivalence about filmmaking itself. Martin and Marie represent antipodal responses to their work: Martin is possessed by a delusional faith in a spiritually serious movie that will change people’s lives; Marie just wants to get her dumb film done. It is one of Search and Destroy’s little ironies that the unpretentious Marie, peddling her schlock saga of one woman standing alone against a ghastly “penis-claw” monster, is the film’s most engaging and sympathetic character. So which is the Salle stand-in, Martin or Marie? Ridiculous goober though he is, Martin is clearly the “artist” of the pair. On the other hand, given Search and Destroy’s pedestrian nature as a semiprefab genre piece, maybe Salle is finally closer to Marie.

Salle’s allegory of filmmaking begs to be extended to artmaking in general: we can read the movie as a parable of the artist’s struggle to get it down, get it done, make the masterpiece, etc., whatever the cost—as if the basic drive to create mattered more than the final product’s value, always in any case subject to questions of audience taste, posterity, etc., rather than of inherent merit. Salle has complained bitterly to Daspin and other journalists about what he perceives as a lack of recognition, the refusal of interested parties to give him credit he feels he deserves. For all the rewards he has reaped in the art world, he obviously feels gypped. As Dr. Luthor Waxling carps in Search and Destroy about the reception of his novel Daniel Strong: The Intellectuals Hated It.

Search and Destroy is a disappointment. One comes away from it wondering silly things like, What’s the point? What drew Salle to this enervating script, an adaptation of a play by Howard Korder? Demonstrating again and again that life is nasty brutish and short, the narrative fairly reeks of the sort of run-of-the-mill mean-spiritedness so common in “naughty” cinema today. Unfortunately for Salle, other people—including, all too obviously, Quentin Tarantino—do this genre better. Whereas Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is pumped full of adrenaline-fueled dialogue and visual wit, Salle contents himself with endless stylized posing; his film is debilitatingly estheticized. Over and over, he treats us to what amounts to a dramatization of figure/ground relations: characters are repeatedly shown squeezed into a tight foreground against a flat colorful backdrop. (Salle favors saturated reds and blues—colors that scream “cinematic.”) Employed with discretion, this could have remained an arresting visual effect, but overuse quickly renders it a compositional cliché. Its meaning is straightforward, and cinematically self-defeating: Salle’s characters really are as shallow as cardboard cutouts. In one of the film’s few genuinely witty touches, Mirkheim meets Kim, his would-be benefactor, in a sleek Manhattan office decorated with an Alex Katz painting of ruthlessly flattened dancers against a flat bubble-gum-pink background.

The Katz reference is one of Search and Destroy’s few, rather haphazard nods to the real-life art world—the place where Salle gained the notoriety that prompts us to look at his filmmaking in the first place. In his use of color and superimposition, Salle the director occasionally seems to be reminding us, in a nudge-nudge, wink-wink kind of way, of Salle the painter. But this effort to signal some sort of continuity between the artist’s two careers seems half-hearted, as if Salle didn’t quite believe it himself. Despite a thick cake-frosting of artiness, Search and Destroy is an artless act of self-indulgence.

Ultimately, Salle’s contribution to the Lust for Life genre is best understood in the context of changes in the contemporary art world—a last desperate act of the ’80s art follies. Given the shrinking of the art economy and the paucity of art glamour today, Mirkheim’s dogged struggle to transfer himself from a small esthetic pond into a more charismatic one mirrors the supposed exodus of big-name artists to Hollywood. It is no surprise that the sometimes egomaniacal figures of the art world’s ’80s boom years would seek in the film industry a new source of narcissistic gratification. I just wonder how many people are going to pay eight bucks to see Search and Destroy.