S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 2 November 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 
 
Tip of the Eisenberg

 

[]

The gap between famous people

and people we actually recognize

continues to grow. In its

efforts to generate buzz for

Michael Mann's upcoming

docudrama The Insider,

Touchstone Pictures has been

playing up Al Pacino's "you're

outta order" histrionics and the

undeniable appeal of a movie

that Mike Wallace loathes. But

at a recent screening, the most

enthusiastic audience response

was given not to Pacino's

scene-chewing, nor to star of

stage and screen Christopher

Plummer, nor even to Philip

Baker Hall, whose Boogie Nights

credo — "I like simple

pleasures, like butter in my

ass, lollipops in my mouth.

That's just me. That's just

something that I enjoy." —

rolls off the tongues of

cineastes around the world. No,

the biggest applause went to the

most recognizable face in the

movie — that of 7-year-old

Hallie Kate Eisenberg.

 

Why such marquee value?

Eisenberg's known screen skills

seem modest enough — she has

earned gag plaudits as an

independent filmmaker and can

perform cheerfully useless

trick-photographic magic

(channeling the voices of Don

Corleone and Aretha Franklin in

support of a particular brand of

cola). Her detractors appear far

more voluble than her defenders,

while the actual fan base is

limited to people with an

inexplicable devotion to the

Buddy Hackett vehicle Paulie.

 

[]

But it's not for an American

icon to trifle over a few

sparsely seen movie roles.

Eisenberg's place in

contemporary consciousness is

both within and above the

tradition of post-toddler

starlets. Her luxuriant ringlets

claim the legacy of US

ambassador to Ghana Shirley

Temple Black, but their

defiantly unfrosted color

rejects the curdled Nordicity

that helped boost JonBenet

Ramsey into eternity. Indeed,

Eisenberg has carved out a neat

public position as the

anti-JonBenet — tough and

determined where JonBenet was

brittle and tragic. Also not for

young Eisenberg is the blanching

cuddliness of the Olsen twins or

the pitiable sickliness of Haley

Joel Osment, that hangdog

pants-wetter from The Sixth

Sense. If anything, Eisenberg's

antics speak of confidence more

than entitlement, power rather

than pampering. Her mimicry in

the Pepsi commercials alludes in

some vague way to demonic

possession, but even here we

find no antecedents in hoary

genre pieces like The Exorcist.

To the extent Hallie uses her

witchcraft, she does it simply

to get the goods that that

powerless old man by her side

can't provide.

 

This is particularly evident in

Eisenberg's star turn in The

Insider, as she accompanies her

armed, frazzled whistle-blower

father (played to feckless

perfection by Russell Crowe) in

a late-night search for a

household intruder. The father,

with a pistol in his hand, is a

bundle of nerves, but tiny

Hallie (deftly underplaying as

always), is a model of

self-possession, her dogged

impassivity suggesting that it

is she, not her father, who has

the chutzpah to deal with the

intruder.

 

Eisenberg's ascendance to iconic

status is part of a general

movement to define maturity

downward. In a recent cover

story that included some

unexpected insights into

pubescence (it turns out peer

pressure and body changes

present challenges and

opportunities for growing kids),

Newsweek gave a rundown on the

state of "Tweens," the 8 to 14

demo coveted by advertisers.

"Are they growing up too fast?"

the magazine asked. (Short

answer: Yes). While the tone of

pandemic concern suggested that

the United States may no longer

have to wait until its offspring

reach adolescence to begin

loathing and fearing them,

nowhere did Newsweek explore the

degree to which adults —

wallowing in that ideal of

endless childhood embodied in

barefoot CEOs and 50-year-old

wiggers — may need kids to

take up some of the slack. "I

still feel unsure [when

clothes-shopping for my

9-year-old]," a Maryland mother

pines. "I like it that Kelly

knows what she likes."

 

[]

And more than just fashion is at

stake here. The real problem

with the Tweens is that, like

their adult charges, they have

already grown too old to be

appealing, too self-indulgent to

make good model adults.

Throughout the 1990s, as Barney

and the Teletubbies have pushed

back the minimum-age requirement

for TV viewing and the

all-parents-out-of-the-house

family model has become

universal, we've seen the growth

of entertainments like Ponette,

the musical version of Big, and

the countless commercials and

cartoons in which kid "Chief

Executives" sit behind desks and

issue orders — all popular

entertainments in which kids

manfully take up the burdens of

adulthood from their

underachieving elders.

 

This is an ideal milieu for

Eisenberg's personal style of

detachment, sturdiness, and

unglamorous competence —

qualities we traditionally look

for in responsible adults. But

her contributions to America's

collective maturity may go

beyond mere style and actually

include content. The Insider, in

true Michael Mann fashion,

features a heightened,

hyperdramatic sense of location:

the poised placidity of

Louisville, the imponderable

ease of the Marin good life,

even a race through Beirut's

sweltering streets (filmed, in

yet another slap at that

resilient Mediterropolis, in

Israel). But the movie's key

stylistic ingredient is the one

that's missing: Through more

than two and a half hours of

intrigue over nicotine-loading,

filter tow, and the machinations

of tobacco villains, we don't

see a single character smoke a

cigarette. For a movie so

relentlessly stylized to pass up

humanity's second most stylized

activity must have required a

deliberate decision. Sadly, the

press kit and the Touchstone

flacks are mum on why this

aesthetic decision was made; but

there in Hallie Kate's miniature

biography, we may have a clue:

"At the age of 3, she wrote a

one-act play, 'Lies and Ashes,'

about a little girl who helps

her mother overcome her smoking

habit." In an interview with the

Independent Film Channel,

Eisenberg expands on the plot:

The play's heroine shakes the

mother out of her complacency by

puffing on a cancer stick

herself, and issuing the old "If

you can smoke, I can smoke"

challenge. It's the oldest trick

in the parent handbook — "If

everybody else jumped off the

Empire State Building, would you

do that too?" But this time,

significantly, it's used by the

child to teach some sense to the

parent. Eisenberg insists the

play was not autobiographical,

but anybody who has seen the

child laying into Matt Damon and

Lili Taylor may have their

doubts.

 

[]

Just as the industrial age

brought with it the Cult of the

Child, the Digital Revolution

may yet deliver the Cult of the

Child as Adult. We fully expect

that within a few years

Premiere or US News & World Report

(or for that matter Fortune) will

feature a "10 Under 10" cover

story about America's youngest

movers and shakers. But it's no

stretch to say that few of these

kids will be able to project the

kind of ease and gravity that is

Hallie Kate Eisenberg's stock in

trade. And she still has youth

on her side. At 7, Eisenberg is

safely removed from the new

trend in accelerated puberty

(brought on, we're proud to

report, by top-notch American

nutrition). Time flies for

latter-day Goldsboros who are

watching the kids grow, but for

the next few years, we can rest

assured that America's Child

will stay the same, only bigger.

 
courtesy of BarTel d'Arcy