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A review of "In the Soup" (1992)


The short bit for people who don't like to read reviews:

In the Soup is an oddball mix of buddy comedy, slice-of-life drama, and film-inside-a-film meta commentary.  At times manic and at times plodding, it's most easily summed up as "a neurotic writer tries and fails to make a movie."  More accurately it plays out like a dramatization of third-rate mobsters with an indie sensibility.  I'd recommend it if you're looking for an honest and self-deprecating approach to the "suffering artist" archetype.

My Rating:  3.5 / 5


The longer bits for people who like film discussion:

The Bit Wherein I Introduce Things

I'm going back to the '80s/'90s wave of Independent Film this week to take a look at the best-known Alexandre Rockwell film.  (It's kind of like the poser's choice if you wanted to check out his filmography.  If I wanted to be truly Hipstery, I guess I should have bought a copy of Louis & Frank.)

Alexandre Rockwell, outside of Independent Film, is pretty much a nobody.  Back in 1994 when the movement was really starting to become commercialized and the lines between "independent" and "studio" blurred, somebody had the idea to get a group of these up-and-coming directors together to collaborate on a feature film.  That project ended up becoming Four Rooms, which featured four segments directed by Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Allison Anders, and Alexandre Rockwell.

Whatever you might think of Four Rooms - from what I can tell, the reaction seems sharply divided by critics who hated it and fans who loved it - it proved to be as much of a stepping stone to success as a group of low-budget directors could really ask for.  Anders went on to direct another six features and has been a frequent contributor to many HBO programs since 2000.  Rodriguez went on to make Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn, and the Spy Kids movies, among others.  Tarantino... well, listen, if you need me to explain who Tarantino is, then you're clearly starting your research in the wrong place.


The odd one out seems to be Alexandre Rockwell.  Since Four Rooms, he hasn't really done a whole lot.  (Only on the Internet can I look at somebody who has written and directed four films and dismiss it as "not a whole lot.")  The few films he has created in the last twenty years are all relatively obscure - to the point at which I could have picked any one of them at random and it'd qualify for the Grail.

Why the discrepancy?  Hell, I don't know.  If I could answer that, I'd be a millionaire in Hollywood.

A few things are clear, though: In the Soup remains his best-loved movie, yet it also remains painfully hidden in the shadows.  Not even the bump from Four Rooms has been enough to bring it into the public consciousness.


The Bit Wherein I Describe the Movie's Plot

Adolpho (Steve Buscemi) is a struggling filmmaker in New York.  He has devoted his life to Art; the sort of guy who drools at the thought of an experimental film that features twenty solid minutes of a silent, black screen.

He spends his time doing three things: trying his hand at odd jobs to raise money to fund his projects, perfecting his 500-page script, "Unconditional Surrender," and fantasizing about his next-door neighbor, Angelica (Jennifer Beals).  His failure at the first is outmatched only by his obsessiveness with the other two.


After his landlord threatens to evict him, Adolpho tries a last resort strategy to make some money: he puts out an ad in the newspaper for his screenplay.  "500 Page Script For Sale."  To his shock / delight, he gets a response.

Joe (Seymour Cassel) is a raucous, wizened, goonish dude who tells Adolpho that he'd like to finance the movie.  They form an immediate friendship and loose partnership, with Adolpho serving as writer / director and Joe serving as Executive Producer.  The only problem?  Joe still needs to raise some of the funds.  Fortunately, now that he has Adolpho as a partner, raising the money will be a cinch - all they have to do is steal it.

Thus begins a series of oddball antics and petty crimes in which Joe organizes various scams and Adolpho reluctantly goes along with them.  The movie glosses over a lot of the finer details of these escapades, but it appears to be a lot of non-violent theft.  One scene, for example, has Adolpho serving as a lookout while Joe breaks into an old man's apartment.  While Joe roots around for stuff to steal, the old man appears and sits down with Adolpho to have a soul-searching conversation about his dead wife.

Adolpho and Joe occasionally stop to discuss "Unconditional Surrender" in between the scams.  They disagree on what type of movie it should be.  Adolpho pictures it as an epic combination of tragedy and philosophical subtext.  Joe's thinking of something simple, like a love story.  The two exist on completely opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of what film can or should be.


These scenes are the only parts of the movie that really touch on the topic of filmmaking.  In that respect, ItS is incredibly unusual.  Most films about filmmaking delve into the day-to-day realities of production or the inherent cynicism of treating art as a business.  ItS, on the other hand, remains squarely focused on the big picture concepts of the creative process - the basic artistic struggle of making a film.

This brings me to the next bit:


The Bit Wherein I Discuss Movies About Movies

The last time I wrote about a movie about movies, I complained about the self-aggrandizing nature of this subgenre.  It's hard to turn this topic into a movie without coming off as kind of a dick.  ("Gee whiz!  My life as a film director, one of the most coveted positions in the history of existence, sure is rough! Here's some of the stuff I have to deal with!  Bet you're glad you work at the chicken insemination plant instead, huh?")  ItS sidesteps a lot of these challenges by focusing on a guy who only wants to make a movie.

This was probably Rockwell's smartest decision with the film because it allows him to get into a more personal and honest discussion about the nature of a creative drive.  Stripped away are all of the silly pieces of struggle, the mechanical motions of a man at work.  Instead we get to see the naked soul of an artist... and laugh at it.


Art is a weird thing.  There's a burning urge deep in your core to express something that has been felt and expressed before by literally everybody else on the planet - except that you want to do it just slightly different.  The artists says, "I want to tell a story of pain!" And the artist will agonize over the best way to express pain, the right palette, the right tones, the gritty details.  The artist will shrug off food, drink, friends, and sex.  The artist will stay up late obsessing over whether or not they have accurately captured pain.  Sometimes this obsession will be a self-defeating beast and the art is never produced.  Sometimes, the artist finishes, but everybody thinks the pain is hilarious.

But the weirdest thing of all is that when all of it is said and done, when all of the obsession and agony is over and the drive has been spent and the artist has produced, even if it all went perfectly and the final movie / painting / song / book captures pain right down to the smallest observable quark of its being... the best case scenario is that people will say, "Huh.  Yeah, yeah... that is pain.  You got it."

And then they move on.  Even the best art is mortal and fleeting.


Art is the tragicomic process of making an epic procedure out of relating the mundane to the ordinary.  I'd argue that a good artist is one who acknowledges that but does it, anyway, because why the hell not?

Back to ItS.  Adolpho is the kind of burgeoning artist who hasn't fully grasped the existential flaws of his life as an artist.  Since he hasn't learned this lesson, he is fragile enough to believe that any possible avenue is worth pursuing if it means that his film will be made.  The result is that he allows himself to be misled, cheated, and exploited by Joe for all kinds of nefarious purposes.  The entire time, he never questions if he's making a mistake or if his movie is worth it.

His arc comes to a close not because he ever actually makes his movie, but because he comes to terms with the childish inanity of his demands.  Eventually, he is willing to conform to Joe's idea of filming a simple love story - it is not a defeat of the artistic spirit, but rather a maturation.

ItS is basically a story about the growth of an independent filmmaker.  If you consider Adolpho to be a metaphor for independent film ("pure" cinema motivated by artistic vision) and Joe to be a metaphor for the studio system (reduction in vision to provide mass appeal to a wider audience), then Adolpho's arc is an optimistic take on how Hollywood can have both artistic integrity and commercial viability.  Adolpho doesn't have to make a shitty film with Joe; just one that can take his vision and make it more meaningful for everybody else.


It's an oddly self-actualized and frank depiction of the relationship between studios and directors.  On the surface, Joe/Hollywood is exploiting Adolpho/the Director.  They waste money on silly extravagances and never make "Unconditional Surrender."  On the other hand, without Joe/Hollywood's financial sensibilities and charm, they would never have brought Angelica/the Audience into the project.

So there you go: Rockwell made an independent movie about how independent filmmakers shouldn't be so independent all the time.


The Bit Wherein I Conclude Things

Ironically - and this would not be the first time I ended an HHG review by noting the irony of a director's message and the movie's relative obscurity - Rockwell's career has remained fiercely independent since making ItS.

I have yet to see any of Rockwell's other films, although I did watch the first fifteen minutes or so of Pete Smalls Is Dead before Netflix removed it from streaming and I plan to finish if it ever comes back up.  From what little I have seen, though, I'm surprised that we haven't seen him helm something with a bigger budget.


Rockwell uses a lot of the same techniques in ItS that have carried other directors on to major successes in their careers.  Like Wes Anderson, he uses a lot of symmetrical framing.  Like Terry Gilliam, he uses a lot of filthy background detail on his sets.  Like Jim Jarmusch, he is willing to set a camera down and let the characters carry on in front of it.  But despite this, he doesn't seem to have done any "hired gun" work.

Hopefully it's by choice.  I'm sure the dude would create something terrific if you gave him a huge budget and a big crew.

You can watch In the Soup on Youtube, or you can buy it on Amazon.com.