Verity schmerity

Film - Philip Kerr on why an obsession with reality does not bring us closer to the truth

Pay attention. We're in a film. From now on, if I kiss you, that may be cinema. If I caress your hair, that may be cinema. If I squeeze your hand, that may be cinema . . .

Thirty years ago, when Jean-Pierre Leaud uttered these lines in Last Tango in Paris, they were meant to be a joke, a send-up of cinema-verite, Jean-Luc Godard and la nouvelle vague. The quest for cinema truth has existed since the early days of Russian Kino-Pravda; but the idea flourished in the Sixties, mainly because of the advent of light- weight cameras and sound recorders, and fast film requiring minimal lighting.

Modern digital cameras mean that cinema truth and its offshoot, reality television, are, in practical terms at least, more tenable than ever. And yet, paradoxically, there is nothing real about what passes for reality television today. Reality TV is distinguished by its extreme artificiality; for example, that you remove 12 members of society from everyday life and place them on a desert island, or in a house on a desert island, or in an audition, before starting to film them. Forget the idea that by observing something you change it. For most of the people involved in so-called reality television, Heisenberg is the name of a fashionable German white wine. The plain fact of the matter is that, in 2002, reality television is a Newspeak word for scopophilia; and we live in a culture where satisfaction is gained principally from looking. Looking at nurses. Looking at vets. Looking at chefs. Looking at gardeners. Looking at firemen. Looking at cops.

There have been movies before now about unscrupulous TV networks that will do anything to get an audience, most notably Network in 1976. And I dare say there will be others in the future, perhaps even as good - Network picked up four Oscars. But Showtime is not one of these. Starring Robert De Niro, Rene Russo and Eddie Murphy, the film is almost identical to the last one starring Robert De Niro (Fifteen Minutes) that I reviewed in these pages in April 2001. The only difference is, that one was supposed to be serious; and this one purports to be a comedy.

A chalk-and-cheese pair of cops (De Niro and Murphy) are followed around LA by a television crew (Rene Russo) while they try to catch a greasy, grinning South American (needless to say) who sells drugs and guns so large and improbable that they appear to have been borrowed from Ripley in Aliens. There's an angry black police captain who gets the boys wrong, a part for De Niro's daughter Drena, and a couple of cameos from William Shatner and OJ lawyer Johnnie Cochran. And that's pretty much it. Gags come thick and fast, but you have to be thick to find them funny. If the film had starred Leslie Nielsen, then some of these stock characters, stock situations and stock dialogue - "I'm talking about reality, about letting the world know who Mitch Preston really is" - might have worked. As it is, there's so much which comes from stock that one wonders if Bloomingdales was having a summer sale of the stuff when the New York-based Tribeca Productions was word-processing the screenplay.

The movie takes its title from Eddie Murphy's catchphrase, which is also the title of the Cops-style TV show. And I doubt there was one person involved with the making of this lamentable film who could have remembered that, originally, the line derives from Bob Fosse's wonderful movie musical All That Jazz (1979). There, when Roy Scheider looked in a dressing-room mirror and said "It's showtime, folks", the irony was almost palpable, as was the homage to Fellini. In Showtime, however, the only irony is to see Eddie Murphy sending up one of the three good films he has made (48 Hours).

As Shakespeare has it: "That's but a trifle here." Because the greater tragedy is to see Robert De Niro, the greatest screen actor of his generation, churning out one dreadful film after another. It's bad enough that he's sending up his own movies; but to send up himself as well looks like nothing short of professional suicide. These days, when I see De Niro, I am reminded of Laurence Olivier who, at the fag-end of his career, gave us duds such as The Betsy and Clash of the Titans.

Well, at least the old ham was honest about it: "They criticise me: 'Why's he doing such muck?' To pay for three children in school, for my family and their future." Fair enough. We all have to earn a crust. But today's movie stars are less frank about their damp squibs. De Niro: "It's just as hard to make a bad movie as it is to make a good one." (No, it isn't.) Eddie Murphy: "I can truthfully say I will never make a bad film." (Murphy hasn't made a bad film, he has made 23 of them.)

Cinema truth? Forget about it. These days, the only truth in cinema is the programme time on your ticket.

Showtime (12) is on general release