The Movie Club

The Folly of Picking on Ouagadougou

Dear Friends,

It’s pretty clear that for Peter Bart, a man who writes much more than he reads, “critics” hold a place analogous to “liberals” in the fevered imagination of Anne Coulter. “We” are an ideological phantom whose assumed rottenness excuses him from any of the normal journalistic responsibilities of accuracy, thought, or respect for nuance. Is it really the case that “critics”—or even a single critic—go around championing movies that were only shown at the Oagadougou Film Festival? Of course, Mr. Bart is exaggerating to make a point, but the point is spurious and the exaggeration quite revealing. The Oagadougou Film Festival is the most prominent in sub-Saharan Africa, but it has no doubt been selected by Mr. Bart over, say San Sebastián or Mar del Plata, because the name sounds funny to him (as African names sometimes do; just ask little Ndugu) and because the idea that anyone would take Africa seriously is apparently ludicrous on its face.

Can anyone seriously believe that the problem with American film criticism today is that too much of it is devoted to discussions of African cinema? How many African films were released in the United States last year? My guess would be somewhere between none and three. There was, as it happens, a wonderful movie from Chad shown in the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes—Mahamet Haroun’s Abouna, a lovely and delicate story of two boys abandoned by their father, and a surprising follow-up to the director’s angry, Godardian previous feature Bye Bye Africa—which no North American distributor, as far as I know, was willing to go near. When critics are able to wrangle space to write about festival movies from faraway places, it’s generally in the hope that interested audiences may someday have a chance to see them—not to obscure, in other words, but to illuminate. I have never been to Oagadougou, and I don’t know any critic who has (though Matt Steinglass did write an excellent piece about it for the “Arts and Leisure” section of the Times a while ago), but I would think that anyone interested in movies (as opposed to sour cultural theorizing) would jump at the chance. It somewhat ironic that Variety, which Mr. Bart edits, is virtually alone in publishing full-length reviews of movies shown at foreign festivals; the magazine’s comprehensive and generally quite intelligent critical coverage of them is one of the most useful things about it.

Now, it may be true that there is, in some quarters (maybe even ours) a critical tendency vulnerable to charges of snobbism, parochialism, and “obscurantism.” But it seems to me that a far greater danger is posed by the kind of cynical faux-populism Mr. Bart and his advertising execs represent, which is based on grand generalizations about what the alleged public wants and likes. I have no idea what the public wants or likes, and it’s not my job to pander or to predict. Nor, of course, is it my job to give voice to a private array of crotchets, fetishes, and prejudices. (That’s what the “Movie Club” is for!)

Anyway, Punch-Drunk Love does strike me as an interesting case study in the divergence of tastes. Even though P.T. Anderson’s movies avoid political hot buttons and provocative shock effects, he seems to be an especially polarizing filmmaker. Some people adored Magnolia to the point of unreason; others loathed it with equal fervor. I was in the former group. When those frogs hit the pavement I burst (well, not burst exactly, but at least blinked) into tears. And, similarly, when Barry Egan told off that sleazy mattress man played by Philip Seymour Hoffman (who I wish had a sturdier leading-man vehicle than Love Liza), and again when he dragged that harmonium down Lena’s hallway, my heart was in my throat.

Needless to say, not everyone agreed. After my fervent little review ran, I received some bewildered (but notably civil) mail and e-mail, and my father-in-law tried to convince me to refund one of his friends the price of a ticket purchased on my advice. What can I say? Roger, I think you once wrote something to the effect that movies everybody likes—or maybe it was movies designed for everybody to like—can never be any good. Similarly, a critic you always agreed with would, in the end, be neither very interesting nor very trustworthy. We tend not only to be people who love movies, but people who love to talk about them—to argue, to trade enthusiasms, to compare notes—and in this we’re not all that unusual, as the Fray and the e-mails you summarize, David, suggest.

So, in that spirit: Mr. Sheffer’s observation about Barry Egan is well-put, but I didn’t think Barry felt particularly entitled to anyone’s love. On the contrary, his awkwardness, his violent temper, and his manifest self-loathing made it hard for him or anyone else to imagine that he could ever be loved. What I found so touching in the movie was the sheer gratuitousness of Lena’s devotion: She fell from the sky like a serendipitous frog princess. Of course, this is a sentimental fantasy, but what made it work for me was the way Lena functioned as the audience’s surrogate, rather than as the object of its gaze (though I’ve never minded looking at Emily Watson). At the beginning of the movie, we’re like Barry’s sisters, smugly laughing at what a loser he is. By the end, if we see him as a hero, it’s because Lena’s affection has rubbed off on us.

Sarah, I think Punch-Drunk Love fits into your stunningly apt observation about movies that work against narcissism—while also, I would add, recognizing the central place that narcissism occupies in our culture. Barry is liberated from the prison of egoism (a particularly negative, self-battering kind, to be sure) by the miraculous connection to Lena. And a lot of movies this year tapped into this theme—the idea that fellow-feeling is the only real source of hope that there is, even if it is necessarily accompanied by complications, compromises, and dangers. Talk to Her was the most sustained and virtuosic development of this theme, but I thought it popped up in Secretary as well and also in Barbershop. At the risk of sounding obscurantist, I would also mention two Cannes/New York Film Festival highlights, The Son (which I believe you saw last night, David, and which is Belgian, not French) and The Man Without a Past, by that great and nutty Finn Aki Kaurismäki. Both will open in the next few months, and both, in their different ways, are humanist parables about the difficulty and necessity of behaving decently.

I would agree—would, indeed, insist—that Adaptation also fits in here. David Poland is quite right—or, at least, his experience matches mine. I thought the movie managed to find, in the midst of the craziness, the auto-deconstruction, and the whiz-bang intellectual and formal promiscuity, a note of authentic feeling. It subverted the convention of the “surprise ending” in the trickiest and most satisfying way, which is by pulling a background-foreground switch. Maybe you thought this was a movie about writer’s block, or about orchids, but it turns out to be about fraternal reconciliation. Charlie’s recognition of Donald was, for me, no less touching for being a jaw-dropping cinematic stunt. (Sarah, I will envy you forever for coining the term “chutzpah shock” a few postings ago. If we ever start a band, let’s call it that.) My suspicion is that this may be as much thanks to Spike Jonze and Nicolas Cage as to Charlie Kaufman. Being John Malkovich, as I recall, also managed to be sweet as well as hyper; Human Nature, without the benefit of Mr. Jonze’s antic touch and with Tim Robbins and Patricia Arquette unable to figure out how to inhabit their characters, failed on both counts, though Rhys Ifans was a lot of fun to watch.

There were also less optimistic, but no less acute, critiques of the culture of narcissism to be found in Igby, Lovely & Amazing, The Good Girl (which I also liked a lot), and, goddammit, Storytelling.  Narcissism, it might be said, destroyed Road to Perdition, a movie almost completely devoid of credible human feeling, and seriously marred Bowling for Columbine, a movie whose ostensible subject—fear and violence in America—could not be more important. It was nearly obscured, however, by the actual subject, which was how much smarter and more righteous Michael Moore is than just about anybody else.

I have gone on too long already, but I want to mention Gangs at least briefly for now. Sarah, I do think that (as David Denby pointed out in his review) Scorsese should have done more to show the lives of black New Yorkers, something he has also neglected in the past. But I think that the movie does comprehend the riots as laying out “the founding blueprint for urban racism,” and one of the things I found bracingly radical about it is its view of the tragic intersection of class and race. It’s one of the few movie treatments of American history I can think of that recognizes the centrality of both class conflict and racist violence to the national identity, and it does this without the usual political pieties, left, right, or center. The New York Scorsese loves (which is not that far from the city in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour)—the America he is interested in exploring—is riven by tribalism, brutality, and the prospect of both state and mob violence. Its greatness is not readily separable from those things. This interpretation of history—a kind of tragic Christian-Marxist perspective, if that makes any kind of sense—is certainly not the only one available, but I found it enormously powerful and fresh.

That’s enough for now.

Your pal,