The Movie Club

Working Against Narcissism

Dear David, Tony, and Roger, if you can hear us,

Sorry, Tony, but Solondz’s never-ending hunt for new forms of cruelty, as you put it so well, is not much of a recommendation. If he were funnier, perhaps; or if I had more of a sense of a hard-to-perceive truth being revealed. But his anti-piety seems, if not predictable (it’s not that, I admit), doctrinaire in its total application and dependent on a masochistic audience to succeed.

On to Chicago. When I asked what the film might have achieved if they could really dance, I meant: What if Zeta-Jones and Zellweger had trained their bodies (over a much longer period than the prep time for this film allowed) to move precisely yet freely, past the realm of technique and into conviction? To register lust and fight for space with each other as if they meant it? To do a pelvic thrust that looked less dutifully correct and a little stronger on the razzle-dazzle?

Chicago has been praised for finding a way to update that giddy Bob Fosse sensibility for the screen. But I remember some rivetingly quiet moments in All That Jazz, in the stage version of Chicago, and in the Broadway tribute to Fosse’s work over four decades. Moments when a spotlight closes in on a dancer’s shoulder, say, and she inches it up, then down, then cocks her head ever so slightly. There may be 20 other people on stage, but all is dark except this one crucial shoulder. And as the dancer casually builds a repeating movement out of stillness, she lets you know that some emotion, often disturbed, usually to do with insanity or horniness, is gathering force inside.

Chicago is one of the year’s really fun entertainments and even close to powerful in two numbers (when Zellweger plays a creepy marionette—she has a mischievous feel for the part—and when John C. Reilly does a just-right pathetic soft-shoe). Elsewhere, though, I totally miss Fosse’s conviction that the body speaks as eloquently as the voice. Here I’m partly talking about theatricality, like you, Tony, but also just, on a basic level, comfort with dancing. Maybe you need stars for whom dancing is a necessary vocation, not a sideline, to go all the way.

I have little to add to the wonderful reviews you both wrote of The Pianist (a film I, like Tony, failed to appreciate when I first saw it at Cannes—we could have a fruitful “Movie Club” on first and second impressions, no?), except to point out once again how singular Polanski seems, and how cool it is to see him vindicated in his conviction that in order to pull off this life’s dream of a project, he needed to work at a distance from his own experience. As I survey my favorite films at year’s end, I find that a lot of the ones I liked best seemed to be working, explicitly or not, against narcissism, or a too-easy identification with the hero or heroine: I’m thinking of Spirited Away, in which the selfish parents turn into pigs; The Two Towers, in which many heroes serve a greater good; Adaptation, where solipsism is a kind of nightmare condition to be escaped; About Schmidt, which admirably avoids your imperative, David, to get Schmidt out of his head (that he’s stuck there is the film’s comedy and near-tragedy); the underrated comedy The Good Girl; Bloody Sunday, which balances its strong convictions with a desire to bear thorough witness. Despite my reservations, you’ve convinced me that Lovely & Amazing at least belongs in this category.

Whereas the films I liked less are the kind that grab you by the collar and say, “Listen to my story.” Gangs of New York comes to mind here. No, it’s not Scorsese’s story, but it needlessly pins its vast revision of history on the skinny shoulders of DiCaprio’s character, Amsterdam, who doesn’t deserve our interest. For all the brilliance with which Scorsese evokes old New York, his hope that we’ll identify with Amsterdam seems lazy to me, a point-of-view problem that forces us to follow distracting storylines about family vengeance that seem almost grotesquely narrow given the scope of what’s going on around him. Tony, I liked what you said in your review about the striking absence of women in this revolutionary new view of old NYC. Amazingly, there appear to be no mothers, sisters, daughters, or cooks! Every 20 years on the eve of battle, a few respectable ladies appear out of nowhere to hold candles that signify, “Go get ‘em boys.” But otherwise, the only female New Yorkers seem to be whores hale and hearty enough to let their boobs hang out in the dead of winter.

A related and bigger problem, for me, is the film’s cave-in when it comes to race. It’s telling that after hours of aestheticizing thousands of knife scars and ax wounds, Scorsese turns over to an AP reporter the job of breathlessly narrating, in rapid shorthand journalese, the destruction of black neighborhoods, rooming houses, an orphanage, lynchings. Maybe, as you suspect, David, the problem is resolved in Scorsese’s longer, uncut version. But if so, the solution is brilliantly hidden in the shorter one. In real life this was the headline tragedy of the draft riots and the founding blueprint for urban racism, and on the evidence, Scorsese ducks the very challenge he has set himself.