The Movie Club

Tempus Paybackus

Roger, you’ve called me out. I began all this by saying I was ashamed that I didn’t write about movies like George Washington. But, see, I thought it was arty, narcotizingly paced, and poorly motivated–more inept than inspired; and I let it go because I didn’t want to slam something that had so little chance of finding an audience anyway. Also, I admit, because I didn’t want to be accused of philistinism or racism. Do you remember what Armond White wrote in last year’s Village Voice poll? That any critic who voted for Tom Hanks or Jim Carrey over Om Puri for Best Actor could only be doing so out of racism? Liberals like me are awfully vulnerable to thuggish accusations like White’s. (And I voted for Om Puri, damn it!) Even you must admit, Jim, that it’s a Voice specialty: Remember that despicable Georgia Brown article announcing that any critic who didn’t vote for Do The Right Thing as the Best Picture was a racist (or worse, a Paulette)? Those of us who had honest disagreements with that movie–who gave it good reviews, conceded its importance in helping to dethrone Ed Koch, grappled with it in article after article, but nonetheless liked another movie better (in my case, it was Drugstore Cowboy)–had to be racists. (This is not meant to goad you, Jim. You always seem to rise wryly above this stuff in your own writing. But I remember your sneaky grin when your colleagues would lob those grenades.)

I dislike digital projection as much as you do, Roger, but I’m not as convinced that the technology won’t improve in the next decade. Last year we talked about perceptual, subliminal differences between the film and tape experiences, and we don’t need to get into all that again. But I almost put two digital movies–Chuck and Buck and TimeCode–on my best-of-2000 list. And because I don’t share Jonathan Rosenbaum’s thesis that there would be mass embrace of The Wind Will Carry Us or Time Regained if we could just get them into the multiplexes and promote them right, I say: The cheapest mode of distribution is the best. That way, even a tiny sliver of the mass audience could make these movies profitable to circulate around the country (and the world).

Now, as to Sarah’s idea that this was the year of filming somberly: To what, Sarah, can we attribute this? I hated Gladiator for all sorts of reasons: its solemn pacing, its jumbled battles, its exploitation of the murder of children to make us hate the bad guys, its tempus paybackus motivation. But that somberness is what made it a hit. The mournful tone, set before the first arrows flew, and Russell Crowe’s low-key, hangdog demeanor kept the audience from greeting this turgid slab of big-budget bloodletting as old-style, sword-and-sandal camp. (The audience saw soulfulness in Crowe where you recognized a hangover.)

This is the impact of those damned Oscars. To get recognized by the Academy, you can’t just make a rattling, good blood-and-thunder epic: You have to give it existential overtones. The Perfect Storm is cool FX plus heroes who spout love poetry as their lungs fill with water. And God forbid Ang Lee and James Schamus would make just a great martial arts epic. (Maybe their next movie should be a hack-’em-up–there’s a genre that could use some elevation.) But we disagree about Traffic, Sarah: I think the structural lapses (and there are some) are a small price to pay for the size and scale of Soderbergh’s canvas, and the picture’s fatalism (not ennui) is central to the whole enterprise. We might think it’s an anticlimax for the film to end with a character watching midnight baseball (is this a jab at the Republican demonization of “midnight basketball” in the Clinton crime bill?), but the point is that small, not big, steps are the only ones possible.

This wasn’t such a bad year at the movies when you count the foreign stuff. I liked Kikujiro, but not nearly as much as you did, Jim–but then I haven’t seen any of “Beat” Takeshi’s violent pictures (a curious lapse, I know), and maybe I’d have recognized the subversion more clearly if I’d been familiar with his baseline aesthetic. Gun Shy is indeed on tape: I watched it again last night and am more convinced than ever it’s a classic, a unique blend of Sopranos and Prizzi’s Honor-style black comedy and screwball romance. It does a far more thorough (and funnier) job of subverting machismo than last year’s Analyze This. I still can’t believe it got the reviews it got …

Oh, yeah: I didn’t name the P.R. firm because mtheym (and the studio) know who mtheym are, and why mpissm off people anymore than I mhavem to? (While I’m griping, I had to beg my way into Traffic, too.) The superb screenwriter Robert Getchell (not my biggest fan, but he keeps reading me!) asks in “The Fray” why I didn’t have the courage of my convictions and ignore all the movies to which I wasn’t invited. Good point, but You Can Count on Me did arrive on VHS from its studio, so clearly someone cared that I (or members of the National Society of Film Critics) see it.

Hey, Tony, join us: How was your first year on the job?