The Movie Club

A More Fundamental Question About Chicago 

Dear Friends,

Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond to that late flurry of postings on Friday—I was in the midst of my own little Charlie Kaufman experience with an assignment for another publication, but without a twin brother, imaginary or otherwise, to help me out of the jam (or ghostwrite my “Movie Club” entry). There is quite a bit to respond to, and not only about Adaptation, so here goes.

Storytelling is neither (merely) a sick joke nor an anti-PC exercise, but the work of one of the few genuinely satirical sensibilities out there. It is a merciless attack on all forms of social piety, including those that have protected Todd Solondz and brought him renown. Unlike, say, Michael Moore, Solondz is thorough enough to be self-lacerating, to force the people who are already sympathetic to him, as well as those who aren’t, to squirm. I understand that people are repelled by his misanthropy, but I have to say that I find it a form of ferocious curiosity. This will sound odd, but he’s like Pedro Almodóvar’s mirror image: Almodóvar uses his limitless compassion, his almost divine conception of love and mercy, to open up modes of desire, feeling, and connection that seem at once completely authentic and utterly new. Solondz uses his prodigious capacity for revulsion to discover new forms of cruelty, selfishness, and failure. Both of these are ethically worthwhile and, for me anyway, profoundly entertaining enterprises. Besides, how many screenwriters could work the lines “I’m thinking of asking Derrida to do the narration” and “John Updike has psoriasis” into a single movie?

David, your rundown of the overrated movies of 2002, while an admirable attempt to stir up a little contention, seemed to me to confirm what a strong year it was, since you had to stretch mighty hard to eke out the list. I mean, yes, The Hours has been gushed over by a few critics and awards-giving groups (as well as the formidable Hollywood foreign-press association or whatever it’s called, that cabal of intellectual giants who dole out the Golden Globes), but the notices have been pretty mixed (and none of the four of us is particularly keen on it). And sure, a lot of intelligent people were, in July, suckered by the slick, empty pandering of Road to Perdition. But I don’t see it on many year-end lists, and I think a lot of the folks who liked it in the summer, when it managed to sell itself as “serious” counterprogramming against Men in Black II and whatever that Austin Powers one was called, would acknowledge that it comes up short against the more substantial fourth-quarter releases. (How many votes did it get yesterday at the National Society of Film Critics meeting? Not many.) But, my God, who cares about Signs or Moonlight Mile, anyway, or even Auto-Focus? I still don’t know why you hated it so much, even though I agree with some of your objections: that its moralism is cold, its sympathy for Bob Crane (or interest in the women he slept with) non-existent. But I found it, as an elevated “disease of the week” movie, to be pretty effective. It got under my skin. Moonlight Mile was generally mediocre, I thought pretty well acted by Jake Gyllenhaal, and certainly not (to my mind) egregiously worse than, let’s say, The Emperor’s Club or City by the Sea. Why not add Maid in Manhattan to the list?

By the way, Roger, I’m (mostly) with you on Minority Report, which I also recently watched for the second time (at home, not in a theater), and which dazzled me all over again with the scope and subtlety of its vision of the future—and which frustrated me all over again with the liberal wish-fulfillment ending. It seemed like a cheat to use so much care and intelligence and wit in suggesting how an authoritarian order could arise out of the social contradictions of the present and then to suggest that that order could be so easily unraveled. You had two hours of Philip K. Dick wrapped up (or undone) by 20 minutes of Elia Kazan. But Spielberg is, with three very strong, very different movies in 18 months, clearly at the top of his game and is doing more to realize and extend the potential of the medium than anyone else working today, commercial or otherwise, American or otherwise. Recently in the New York Press Armond White remarked that no filmmaker has had such a year since Godard in the late 1960s, a nicely ironic observation given that Spielberg is the villain of Godard’s most recent movie, In Praise of Love—a kind of Voldemort of American cultural imperialism, gobbling up the life stories of humble Europeans because, doncha know, “Americans have no history of their own, so they must buy other peoples.” I can’t help but think that the Francophobic motif of Catch Me If You Can—who are the French? A nation of faithless women and brutal, bureaucratic gendarmes, that’s who—is a sly riposte to this kind of reflexive anti-Americanism. In any case, it’s preferable to the ass-kissing punchline of Hollywood Ending.

Speaking of which, I was at a dinner party the other night chatting about movies with some very friendly French people. They were under the impression that Talk to Her was the first Almodóvar movie ever to be released in the United States and explained to me that in France people take cinema very seriously. “Yes, here too,” I said. “Of course,” one of them replied, “but it’s not really the same.” One asked about my 10-best list and then commented, with surprise and a hint of condescension, at how many European films were on it. Compared to previous years, I said, I didn’t think there were that many, but which did he have in mind? “Oh, well, The Pianist, of course, and The Fast Runner.” I let slide a possible argument about The Pianist (English language, but made by a Pole with French money) and said I was surprised to hear that the Canadian territory of Nunavut, where The Fast Runner comes from, was now considered part of Europe. “Oh, but you know what I mean,” he said. I am sure Zacharias Kunuk and his fellow pioneers at Igloolik Isuma productions will be gratified to hear that, in spite of having as solid a claim on being defined as Americans as anyone on the continent, they are Europeans after all.

Not that the French are all bad. Au contraire (though we must await the release of Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover and Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, the two Cannes howlers of deux mille deux, to see just how low the French cinema des auteurs is capable of sinking). One of the highlights of my year—and yours too, David, I happen to know, since we saw it together—was the release of a restored print of Georges Clouzot’s Quai des Orfèvres, a 1947 noir that has rarely been seen here. It’s set in the music-hall Parisian demimonde and so is full of wonderful music. It also throbs with a sense of human frailty and nobility that combines world-weary cynicism and infinite warm-heartedness. I would locate it somewhere between Billy Wilder and Robert Altman. Its characters—a lesbian photographer, a tough Paris cop who has adopted a black child during his service in the colonies, the quarrelsome married couple at the center—are so particular, so complex, that you feel like your sense of the species and its possibilities has been enlarged and clarified.

I can’t think of higher praise for a movie, and among the new ones this year I felt something similar at the end of Talk to Her, Spirited Away, and also The Pianist, which was the big winner yesterday at the National Society. I realize I still haven’t mounted the promised defense of Adaptation—which would be a little different from either Sarah’s or Roger’s, though I find much of what both of you say compelling—but maybe we could find a moment to discuss the films this year that dealt with history, of which there were an interesting handful. The Pianist, Gangs of New York, The Quiet American, Bloody Sunday—all trying to be something more than just recreations of the past; trying to formulate a way of connecting the past to the present; trying, at a rather unpromising time for it, to be political as well as historical.

Sarah, I don’t want to put you on the spot or drag a private conversation into the public eye, but I recall that you had some serious reservations about Y Tu Mamá También, one of the most intensely and widely adored movies of the year. They had, as I recall, to do with its misrepresentation of—or bad faith about—the recent and current political state of Mexico, about which I (and a great many of the picture’s fans) know shamefully little. I would love to hear a knowledgeable dissent on this movie—my own has to do with resistance to the sentimental fantasy of a dying, conveniently gorgeous woman holding onto her ebbing life force by fucking teenage boys—though of course if you don’t feel like it, we can speak of other things.

Like, for example, Chicago. Doesn’t the second-rateness of the score prevent it from being a great movie musical? Also, for all the wondering about whether Zeta-Jones, Zellweger, Gere, et al. could really sing and dance, a more basic question was ignored. Can they act? That is, can actors grounded in the naturalistic conventions of screen drama still manage the poised theatricality of this kind of spectacle? The only one who provided a credible “yes” was Mr. Gere, in my opinion.

So, you wanna fight, we’ll fight.