The Movie Club

Fish Farts and Oversouls

Dear Jonathan,

I’m heading off this morning to see The Thin Red Line again to try to decide if I like it, hate it, or maintain my current position of Zen neutrality. But I want to thank you for goading and challenging me; I hope you’ll participate in more Slate dialogues. It’s no surprise that we find many points of connection, since, as Terrence Malick might put it, we are all one: American and Japanese, Christian and Jew, Paulette and Rosenbaumian. Do we all not share the same great oversoul? (Or has the combination of e-mail and Prozac made me grandiose beyond measure? Might this be Terrence Malick’s problem?)

Quick: Who said this, and in what movie?

“It’s so quiet… You can hear a fish fart.”

Liza Minnelli in Lucky Lady–which I agree is one of the ten worst films of all time.

You cite Lucky Lady as a famous case of a studio keeping a movie in theaters until people more or less have to see it, but the distribution situation has changed a lot since the early 70s, and most films (even mega-budget films) no longer have the luxury of going to a given screen and “locking.” You lease by the week these days. As Christine Vachon points out, less than a decade ago, Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet could do its best business in its eighth week, after word of mouth had a chance to work its magic. The economies of distribution and exhibition today don’t lend themselves to such indulgences. I’ve also had the experience of coming out of showings at Manhattan’s downtown “independent”-oriented theater, the Angelika, and being set upon by Miramax temps with questionnaires: How’d I like the picture? Would I recommend it to my friends? I don’t know how many of our favorite films would hold up under that kind of scrutiny; I do know that decisions about what kind of resources a studio will put behind a given film are made on the basis of the first few days’ business and the (often ill-considered) comments of people who emerge from early screenings.

I agree with you that the audience for serious films is out there (and that we who scribble on the Internet have greater access to it). The problem, as I’ve suggested above, is that movies no longer have an opportunity to find their audiences. And marketers’ ideas about what people think (as you’ve pointed out with regard to the impeachment of our president) are often dead wrong. Still, I don’t share the general pessimism of my esteemed colleagues David Denby and Jacob Weisberg. No film this year hit me as hard as The Apostle, but even the mainstream swill seemed of a higher order. Either bad movies are getting a lot smarter and more resourceful as cinema or my grading curve is getting is a lot steeper.

Now some odds and ends: Don’t see You’ve Got Mail because anyone who truly loves The Shop Around the Corner will be driven mad by its dilution of real drama, its insular Upper West Side attitudes, and its peculiar depiction of the romance of being absorbed by a conglomerate. Or maybe you should see it, since it will confirm so many of your darkest fears about the direction of the culture.

In closing, I’d like to share with Slate readers my votes for the January 3 meeting of the National Society of Film Critics. Members of this prestigious and highly selective organization may submit three votes in an assortment of categories.

Best Picture
1. There’s Something About Mary
2. Out of Sight
3. Happiness

Best Actor
1. Brendan Gleason, The General
2. Edward Norton, American History X
3. Eamonn Owens, The Butcher Boy

Best Actress
1. Holly Hunter, Living Out Loud
2. Anne Heche, Return to Paradise
3. Vanessa Redgrave, Mrs. Dalloway
(I could have added our beloved Jennifer Lopez or Cate Blanchett for Elizabeth.)

Best Supporting Actress
1. Catherine O’Hara, Home Fries
2. Jane Adams, Happiness
3. Lisa Kudrow, The Opposite of Sex
(This is the best category. I could have added Cristina Ricci for just about anything, along with Kimberly Elise–the one who doesn’t act like an android–for Beloved or Julianne Moore for Psycho–OK, just for living.)

Best Supporting Actor
1. Nick Nolte, The Thin Red Line
2. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Happiness
3. William H. Macy, Psycho (and A CivilAction)
(I could have added Oliver Platt for Bulworth, Leonardo DiCaprio for the awful Celebrity, or Christian Bale for Velvet Goldmine.)

Direction
1. Todd Haynes, Velvet Goldmine
2. Neil Jordan, The Butcher Boy
3. Steven Soderbergh, Out of Sight

Screenplay
1. Todd Solondz, Happiness
2. Don Roos, The Opposite of Sex
3. Scott Frank, Out of Sight

Cinematography
1. Maryse Alberti, Velvet Goldmine and Happiness
2. Buffalo 66 (I can’t remember the D.P.’s name)
3. Elliot Davis, Out of Sight

Foreign Film
1. The Celebration
2. Taste of Cherry (your influence, Jonathan)
3. The Eel

Do we vote on music? Pity, since Elliot Goldenthal’s score for The Butcher Boy is one of the most deliriously imaginative I’ve heard, and really binds the film’s extremes of tone.

I also want to propose a couple of special citations, one to the folks behind the Touch of Evil recut, the second to Manny Farber on the reprinting of one of the seminal collections of film criticism, Negative Space.

By the way, if any Slate reader wishes to attempt to change my mind or to influence my voting, he or she should feel free to e-mail me. I’m open to feedback–not to mention flattery and bribes.

Happy 1999,

David