The answer to David’s question is Option C: Both Carson and Thomson are right. It’s hard to argue anything but that ‘70s movies were better. It’s also pointless and self-punishing to try to wish the ‘70s aesthetic back to life (where it would feel chewed up and old hat, not to mention facing the same flood of competition that drains today’s best films of the force they’d have enjoyed 30 years ago) and thus miss the pleasures we do enjoy. That’d be like a book critic writing in the last days of the 19th century grumpily comparing everyone to George Eliot, missing out on Oscar Wilde, and in his discouragement reaching the morbid, and wrong, conclusion that literature would know no future flowering.
That said, by surprise I happened to catch Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick’s landmark 1978 beauty about a love-triangle tragedy on an early 20th-century wheat farm that is both an idyll and a dusty hell) on TV last night, and watching it helped clarify some misgivings that cut into my basic admiration for In the Bedroom. Malick’s patient genius for situating people in the landscape and his painterly compositions still make that film seem majestically unhurried—but next to In the Bedroom it is a veritable dervish. Todd Field’s film is simply too long. I also got to thinking about the lovely scenes of Marisa Tomei lounging in a meadow, or Tom Wilkinson out on the deepest blue water. And compared to Malick’s shots of locusts on wheat stalks or workers at harvest or Brooke Adams down by the river—shots that express a heartbreaking ambivalence about bountiful, harsh America, and long-nurtured ideas about laborers and bosses, and a deep engagement with art history—these pictorial sequences feel like stately yet somehow thin padding. It’s unfair to take the comparison too far, of course. But it did underline for me how much stronger In the Bedroom’s point of view could be. I’m not sure that its beauty says anything more interesting than: Life can seem really nice, and then one day it’s not.
Another irksome thing about that film: its women, who are quite literally the oldest types in the book. Tomei is an exciting Mary Magdalene, who can’t seem to resist a roll in the hay but who maintains a kind of unearned innocence, simply because the director says so. Meanwhile Sissy Spacek’s character, a mother trying to head off her college-bound son’s affair with an older woman saddled with kids and a scumball ex, is an interferer and a cruel castrator. It’s been amusing to read critics gush over how radiant Tomei is, and how understandable that the father would want his son’s affair with her to continue so that he can vicariously go there, too—them’s some interesting family values! But Spacek, the one character in the film with a responsible impulse, needs to be punished to remember her human side. Is this what they mean when they talk about the film’s returning people to primitive choices?
Time runs short, so I’ll turn to Ghost World, especially the magnificent, adorable, and peerlessly creepy Steve Buscemi. He is beautiful here, it’s true, and Zwigoff deserves credit for coaxing this beauty out of him; and advantageously for the movie he plays a nerdy devotee of old jazz records, thus indirectly providing film critics who want one a fun, self-referential way to laugh at themselves. But sorry to break up your consensus, Tony: Without Buscemi’s charisma and insight and big, fragile Frisbee eyes, this film falls apart. I don’t mean to comment on Thora Birch the actress, who is really talented. But being in the presence of her character is a ticket to a headache. She is insatiable, a monster of need who uses everyone in sight, and the director is never moved to explain why. Zwigoff’s self-promoting, decade-late satire of P.C. culture with its rhetoric of therapy hasn’t prevented him from making a movie that at every point seems to stamp its foot and cry: Me! Me! Hey—over here—me!